This is going to be a very quick breakdown of the difference between Individualized Education Programs (“IEP”) and 504 Plans. These are two different types of documents arising out of two distinct statutes and either can be appropriate, depending on a child’s needs.
An IEP is a “written statement” provided to a student who qualifies for protection under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”). Students entitled to protection are those who have a) been evaluated and b)found to have certain disabilities and c) who require special education as a result of the disabilities. There are exhaustive requirements for IEPs. For example, they must be in place before the beginning of the school year, they must be reviewed annually, they must include goals arrived at in a meeting between parents, the child’s teachers and certain school administrators and students with IEPs MUST be reevaluated every three years. A student is also entitled to reevaluation if an issue arises or if declassification is being considered. IEPs are highly regulated by both the State and Federal governments as part of the grant of federal funds to states under the IDEA. The IDEA also affords specific remedies, like private school tuition reimbursement and compensatory education.
504 plans are provided to students who qualify for protection under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973. The trigger for protection under that act is a disability that limits a “major life activity” and learning is considered a major life activity. Students can be provided with related services and accommodations under 504 plans, and this is probably a source for confusion. However, 504 plans differ from IEPs chiefly in the rights that they do NOT include. Students with 504 plans are not entitled to triennial evaluations and there is no tracking of progress in a 504 plan, since goals are not required to be in a 504 plan. There is no state oversight of 504 plans. 504 also does not afford the same remedies as the IDEA, i.e. private school tuition reimbursement or compensatory education.
There may well be circumstances where a 504 plan is sufficient. A student may merely need extended time testing, or food at a certain hour to respond to a medical need. (Though not to confuse you completely, there is case law holding that certain medical assistance can be considered a related service under the IDEA – but for we’re just addressing the basics here). Other students need to have an instrument that creates a higher level of accountability. In those cases, an IEP is probably the preferable document. However, and as always, each case, like each child and each family, is unique.