A common area of confusion for parents in the area of special education is the difference between an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and a Section 504 accommodation plan (504). Both the IDEA and 504 require that a school evaluate a student for a suspected disability without delay to ensure that the student is able to receive a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). However, the requirements that the school must abide by in providing a student with FAPE differ depending on the student’s specific needs and whether he or she is on an IEP or a 504 plan.
Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
The IEP is a written document that sets the learning goals for the student and describes the intensity of services and level of professional involvement that a school must provide in order to enable a qualified student to make effective progress. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that, in conjunction with the state law, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 71B, specifies the process for the development and enforcement of an IEP. As suggested by the name, the IEP is individualized and responsive to the unique needs of the student and can provide both special education and related services. In order to qualify for an IEP, there are two requirements that must be met:
- The student has one or more of the disabilities specified in the IDEA; and
- The disability impacts the student’s educational capacity and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum, which results in the need for specialized instruction.
The IDEA establishes strict guidelines regarding the creation of the IEP and who participates in its development. The IEP Team must include the student’s parent(s) or guardian(s), at least one of the student’s general education teachers, at least one special education teacher, school psychologist or another specialist who can interpret evaluation results, and a district representative with authority to make special education decisions.
Some of the components that the IEP must include are:
- Annual education goals for the student and how progress toward those goals will be measured
- Services that the student will receive, which can include special education, related, supplementary, transportation, and/or extended school year services
- Placement in which the student will receive the services, which can include full inclusion, partial inclusion, or substantially separate programming
- How the student will be included in extra-curricular and other school activities
- Consideration of potential factors that could place the student at risk of bullying
The IDEA also requires that parents receive written notice when the school wants to change a student’s services or placement, prior to enacting any changes. Notice and written consent is also required prior to any formal school evaluations not provided routinely to other students or the beginning of IEP services. Parents can seek funding from the district to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) by an outside expert.
504 Accommodation Plan (504)
A 504 is a plan that enables a student to successfully access the curriculum in school through specific accommodations and/or related services. The 504 process is outlined by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is a federal law that seeks to protect any student with a disability from discrimination as a result of his or her disability. A 504 plan is a good option for students with disabilities who do not require specialized instruction but do need specific accommodations in order to receive FAPE and benefit from the same access to an education as their classmates. For example, accommodations can include extended time on tests, priority seating close to the front of the classroom, and check-ins from teachers. To qualify for a 504 plan, the student must:
1) have a disability (which “substantially limits one or more major life activities”) and
2) the disability must interfere with the student’s ability to access and/or learn in a general education setting.
The 504 process is less intensive and specific than the IEP process. For instance, the 504 Team is not strictly defined, as compared to an IEP Team, and typically includes the student’s parent(s) or guardian(s) and general/special education teachers. Additionally, school districts are not required to include parents to participate in the process or to document a 504 plan in writing, although most districts will do both. The 504 plan includes the specific accommodations and supports for the student, as well as the names of the staff that will provide each service and the individual responsible for implementing the plan. Parents cannot seek funding for an IEE from the school district under a 504 plan but always have the option to pay for a private evaluation by an outside expert.
Whether your student would benefit from an IEP or a 504 plan depends on his or her specific needs and challenges, as well as the recommendations from the district’s evaluators and any outside experts that may have conducted an assessment and provided recommendations.