In a nutshell, an IEP is governed by a special education law, while a 504 plan is governed by a civil rights law. IEPs are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 504 Plans are required under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 codified at 29 U.S.C. § 794.
When dealing with an IEP, a student requires specialized instruction.
Under IDEA, to qualify for an IEP, “eligible students” are those having a disability based on 1 of 13 disability categories. These are:
- Emotional Disturbance
- Hearing Impairment
- Intellectual Disability
- Multiple Disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Specific Learning Disability
- Speech or Language Impairment
- Traumatic Brain injury
- Visual Impairment/ Blindness
- Other Health Impairment
Having 1 of these 13, or just having a disability is not enough. This will not automatically qualify for an IEP. The disability category must also affect performance in the classroom. The child must be “adversely affected” by the disability.
IEP’s include formal written learning goals and objectives. 504 Plans tend to be often informal. In a 504 Plan, a student needs accommodations, or changes made to or in the classroom. 504 Plans do not require specialized instruction. No formal written plan is required. Qualification is based on record of impairment of the student.
Another difference is that for IEP’s a state will receive additional funds for eligible students, unlike a 504 Plan, where states do not.
In practice, it is often noted that the principal of a school oversees the 504 plans. The principal will often take an active involvement with the implementation of the individualized plan. For an IEP, the school’s Special Education department and a specific special ed counselor tends to be responsible for the implementation of the plan.
Section 504 regulations require a school district to provide "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability in the school district's jurisdiction. This is regardless of the nature or severity of the disability.
FAPE includes the provision of regular or special education as well as related aids and services designed to meet the educational needs of the individual to the same extent as the needs of students without disabilities are being met.