A Parent’s Guide to 504 Plans and IEPs: What They Are and How They’re Different


Alison Yin for EdSource

Approximately 13% of public school enrollment in California are special education students.

Each year, a greater percentage of students in California qualify for special education. Last year, about 13% of K-12 California public school students received individualized services for special needs, up from about 10% in the early 2000s. Navigating the Special Education Landscape can be daunting for parents trying to get the best education for their children. Here is a guide to individualized education programs, 504 plans, and other aspects of special education.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is an Individualized Education Program, an educational roadmap for children with disabilities. Required by the Federal Education for Individuals with Disabilities Act, an IEP is a regularly updated document that outlines goals and milestones for students based on their unique abilities. IEPs are created by teachers, parents, school administrators, other school personnel such as psychologists, and sometimes students themselves. All special education students have an IEP.

In California, about 800,000 students, or 13%, have IEPs. Students with IEPs may have autism, intellectual disabilities, orthopedic disabilities, brain damage, deafness, visual impairments, speech or language impairments, or other disabilities that require specialized assistance with learning. school.

What is a 504 package?

The “504 Plan” refers to Section 504 of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which states that any organization, including a school, that receives federal funds cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. In schools, this can mean that students with learning disabilities, for example, can get more time to take tests or complete homework, sit near the front of the class, or use textbooks in formats they can understand, such as audio books. A team of teachers, specialists, and parents determine the accommodations a student receives under their 504 plan.

In general, the objective of a 504 plan is to accommodate students with disabilities in general education classes. About 85,100 students in California, or about 1.5%, have 504 plans, according to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

What is the difference?

A 504 plan aims to ensure that a student has equitable access to a learning environment. An IEP focuses on educational benefits and often includes direct services such as speech therapy or occupational therapy. Both are free. Some students have both, and some have only one or the other. 504 plans are generally available for students with a wider range of disabilities, including attention deficit disorder. IEPs are available to students with 13 specific criteria such as orthopedic disabilities or intellectual disabilities.

What is the advantage of having a 504 or an IEP?

IEPs or 504 plans can help a student with disabilities—from minor learning disabilities to profound physical, emotional, or intellectual impairments—succeed in school and beyond.

Special education services may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, or behavioral therapy; individual help from a tutor or assistant; or the instruction of special education teachers who are trained to work with students with special needs. Special education students can spend the majority of their day in general education classes and receive their special services there, or they can spend their entire day in a special education class, depending on their needs. Most school districts try to include students with disabilities as much as possible in classes with their peers without disabilities, in accordance with federal law.

A 504 plan can help a student thrive in a general education classroom with minimal disruption to their education, and it can be adapted to each educational environment, such as an art or physical education class. , which the student experiences throughout the day.

How do I know if my child needs a 504 or an IEP?

Schools will evaluate a student to determine if they qualify for an IEP or 504 plan. Parents can pay for private evaluations, although schools are not required to adopt recommendations from private reports.

To obtain an IEP plan, a student’s disability must interfere with their ability to fully benefit from the general education program, which means they need special education. To obtain a 504 plan, a student’s disability must interfere with their ability to learn in a general education classroom without accommodation.

What if I don’t agree with the school’s decision?

If a school decides that a child is not eligible for an IEP plan but parents believe the child should have one, or if a parent disagrees with services provided by a school, there are many options for resolving disagreements. Local special education plan areas have specially trained staff to resolve conflicts and help families communicate with schools. Parents can also speak to an advocacy group such as Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Fiesta Educativa, or other groups that help parents navigate the special education system in California.

How can I find out more?

The California Department of Education’s Special Education Division includes information on parent rights, data collection, policies, and other information for families, teachers, and students. School districts, county offices of education, and local special education plans, which oversee special education in multiple school districts, can also help parents. The California Department of Developmental Services and California Department of Health Care Services, both state agencies, and Disability Rights California, a nonprofit advocacy group, also have resources for children, families, and adults with disabilities. California’s SELPA administrators also offer a host of resources for parents.

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