Difference Between the IDEA and Section 504

This is the fourth post by an experienced  special education attorney that analyzes the differences between the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  To completely explain and analyze the differences between these two very important federal laws that provide procedural and substantive rights to families of children with disabilities would take much time and space than I have done so to this point. But I have tried to outline the most important differences – and sometimes similarities between these two laws. Parents are not adequately explained the differences and similarities of these laws by school systems. The parental rights brochures given to parents by school systems, as required by law, probably cause more confusion and questions that is usually answered by school system staff. This is why it is so important to contact a special education attorney to explain to you these laws and if they apply to your child.  This is particularly true at the beginning of the school year right now when some children, who have not been timely identified by school systems as having suspected disabilities, are exhibiting behavioral, learning or other educational problems in classes. The beginning of school is a critical juncture because the longer it takes for a school system to locate, identify, and then evaluate your child, the longer it will take remediate and properly educate your child, who is falling further behind academically and is struggling in school.

When your child is finally determined to be eligible for special education and/or related services, it is important for you to know the differences between an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and a Section 504 accommodations plan.  Both the IDEA and Section 504 require that all children with a disability receive a free appropriate public education regardless of the nature and severity of their disability. How school systems provide a free appropriate public education for a child with a disability under either the IDEA or Section 504 is starkly different. Under Section 504, the school system is required to meet with the parents and develop an accommodations or Section 504 plan. Section 504 does not provide specific details what must be contained in a Section 504 accommodations plan. There is no legal requirement who must attend the Section 504 plan meeting. Most school systems will describe the nature of the child’s disability, how the disability is affecting the child’s learning, and develop accommodations, modifications, and related services that may be needed for the child to receive a free appropriate public education. A Section 504 plan may be two to four pages at most.  For example, a child with ADHD that does not adversely affect the child’s educational performance and is not in need of special education and related services, may receive preferential seating in classes, more time for taking tests and completing assignments, smaller group testing with less distractions, shorter in-class and home work assignments, and teacher or paraprofessional redirections for the student to pay attention in classes.  On the other hand, the legal requirements for developing and implementing an IEP are much more detailed and lengthy. An IEP may be least 8-10 pages and some may exceed 20 or more pages depending upon the number of goals and objectives for the child.

See 20 U.S.C. 1414(d) for the requirements for an IEP, the individuals who must attend an IEP meeting, how the IEP must be developed, and the review and revision of an IEP. Annual IEP meetings may take at about  three hours but I have attended a few IEP meetings that have taken 6-9 hours.  If you want more information about the requirements about an IEP, then contact a special education attorney or experienced parent advocate to attend the annual or periodic review IEP meeting. I have attended countless IEP meetings  but only a handful of Section 504 meetings over the past 32 years.  There are good reasons why parents often want a special education attorney or experienced parent advocate to attend an IEP meeting and not a Section 504 accommodations  plan meeting.  I will be glad to entertain any comments and questions that parents may have why a parent should have a special education attorney or experienced advocate at an IEP meeting. I want to be clear that I am not  saying all parents must obtain legal or lay advocate representation for every IEP meeting.  I am saying that parents who want assistance at an IEP meeting for their child for varying reasons generally benefit from having an attorney or advocate attend such meeting.

I want to conclude these series of posts on the differences between the IDEA and Section 504 by adding it is my considered judgment and experience that  parents of children with a disability should request their  child to be determined eligible under the IDEA and have an IEP developed for the child. Sometimes school systems will not comply with the requirements of the law and only provide a child with a disability a Section 504 plan instead of determining their eligibility under the IDEA and developing an IEP.  In such cases the Section 504 plan does not provide the specialized educational instruction and related services needed for the child to make adequate educational progress. And in some cases parents do not want their child to be classified as special education and prefer the child be considered regular education.  Understandably parents may not want their child to be unnecessarily classified as “special education” if it is not warranted.  But when it is warranted by testing and assessment results, and opinions of professionals, and by the requirements of law, then parents should consider accepting their child’s eligibility for special education under the IDEA.  Of course, some parents choose to homeschool their child with a disability or enroll them in a private school or facility instead of enrolling them in a public school. This is a parent’s legal and parental choice. With this said, it is preferable to consult with professionals in making this choice for the best interests of your child.