IEP vs 504: Why You Usually Want the IEP

by | Jul 13, 2022

There is a lot of confusion about Section 504 Plans versus Individualized Education Plans (504 vs. IEP). Many times families will share their concerns for their student with the school team only to be told the site wants to assess for a 504 Plan. An IEP is rarely the first option mentioned to a family. Or, if a student is assessed for special education but doesn’t qualify, a school may offer the 504 Plan instead. In this post, we’ll discuss the basics of a 504 vs. IEP and then examine why an IEP is usually better than a 504 Plan for your student.

The Basics:

If your student obtains a Section 504 Plan, they are entitled to accommodations only and are monitored under the general education umbrella. If your child receives an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), they are entitled to receive special education and related services and are monitored under the special education umbrella through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Section 504 and the IDEA are subsets of the Americans with Disabilities Act. With an IEP or a 504 Plan, your student may receive accommodations for day-to-day classroom activities and instruction, as well as with statewide testing. However, there are some significant differences we will discuss below. 

To qualify for either a Section 504 Plan or an IEP, the District must obtain your permission to conduct an assessment. An assessment for an IEP is much more thorough and detailed. A 504 Assessment typically looks at transcripts and just gains teacher and parent input. 

Who Qualifies for a 504 Plan? 

To qualify for a Section 504 Plan, the student must: 

  1. Have a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  2. Have a record of such an impairment, 
  3. AND be regarded as having such an impairment.

Who Qualifies for an IEP? 

To qualify for an IEP there is a three-prong test as well, but it has different requirements:

  1. Does the student have a disability as defined under the IDEA?
  2. Does that disability cause a significant negative impact on educational performance?
  3. As a result of the disability and the significant negative impact on educational performance, does the student require special education and/or related services?

Which is Better: a 504 Plan or an IEP? 

While each case is student-specific and driven by each individual student’s needs, an IEP is typically better than a Section 504 Plan. Here’s why:

  • Support and Services: You only get special education and related services through an IEP. This means more than just accommodations. This means a teacher or staff member who has specialized expertise in working with your student’s areas of need will work directly with your child through the IEP. There will be goals and required progress monitoring to ensure your student’s needs are being addressed. With a Section 504 Plan, your student may get to have access to a counselor or a special education teacher when needing a quiet place to take a test, but all supports will be provided by the general education teacher. There will be no special education services.
  • Expanded Age Limits: Under the IDEA, students are entitled to receive special education and related services from age 3-21. If your student transitions into kindergarten with an Individual Family Services Plan (IFSP), it will typically transition into an IEP so your student continues to receive services under the school district. If your student has an IEP and is on a certificate track (not getting a diploma), they will be entitled to enter into the District’s transition program from the time they complete their senior year up until they turn 22. A student on a 504 Plan will not receive these services and supports: once they graduate, the school district ends its responsibility.
  • School Accountability: Having an IEP means that your student will be assigned a special education case manager who is required to monitor your student’s progress. With a Section 504 Plan, an administrator is loosely responsible for ensuring teachers are implementing your child’s accommodations. There is oftentimes very little accountability in ensuring your child’s accommodations are being provided. There is far more recourse when a school fails to implement an IEP versus failing to implement a Section 504 Plan.
  • Consent: Believe it or not, under Section 504, there is no requirement that the District obtain your consent to develop and implement the 504 plan. Why? Because your student isn’t getting special education or related services; they are still in the general education setting; their time in general education isn’t changing to a specialized program; and they really aren’t doing a whole lot outside of what every other general education student is getting throughout the regular school day.
  • Parent Rights: IEPs have more teeth. That’s right, teeth. Both Section 504 and IDEA have parent rights (aka “procedural safeguards”). A 504 procedural safeguard is usually 1-2 pages in length, whereas the IDEA document is typically 8-10 pages. You and your student simply have more protected rights with an IEP. This means when you realize the District isn’t implementing the IEP, you have more avenues to pursue compensatory education, dispute resolution, and due process.

Is there a downside to having an IEP vs. a 504 Plan?

Without a doubt, having a 504 Plan is the least intrusive way of supporting a student who only needs accommodations and does not need special education support. But remember: a 504 Plan is simply to provide accommodations, nothing else. With a 504 Plan, your student will not be pulled out of their classroom for special services. There may be a decreased risk of stigma attached to a 504 Plan. But, with the 504 Plan, you may run into some of the roadblocks noted above and have very little recourse to address the school’s failure to implement the accommodations on the 504 Plan. 

Are there things you can do to get the school to implement the 504 Plan? 

Sure! Our office regularly assists families in compelling the schools to ensure accommodations are provided to students. Keep in mind that the school may develop and implement a 504 Plan without your consent and your rights under Section 504 are significantly limited compared to an IEP.

Having an IEP will typically mean your student is pulled from general education classes to receive support or may be in a special education classroom and “mainstreamed” into the general education classroom. This may draw more attention to their disability. They may not have as many opportunities to interact with general education peers if they have significant needs. However, with an IEP, your student is guaranteed to have special education and/or related services which can only be implemented with your consent. No change can occur to your student’s educational programming without your consent with an IEP. There is a higher level of accountability on the school’s part which means you have a higher level of parent rights to protect your student’s interests. 

How do I know if a 504 vs. IEP is right for my student?

Deciding if your student needs special education and/or related services can be a big step. While the pros tend to outweigh the cons, you may still have questions about the impact of special education on your student now as well as in their future. You may want to take steps to have your student assessed for an IEP or 504 but do not fully understand the steps. Our team at AdvocacySD regularly consults with families on these issues. We help you understand the process, the benefits and weigh the risks so you can make a fully informed decision regarding your student’s educational path. We are with you every step of the assessment process to ensure you are actively involved in the process and that your concerns are heard by the school when determining if your student needs an IEP vs. 504 Plan.

Next Steps

If this sounds like your situation with your student, use our Contact Form to schedule a consultation with our educational consultants to discuss next steps for launching toward success.