The Differences Between 504 Plans & IEPs

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this article.

KPS4Parents assists parents pursue a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) for children who need IEPs or 504 Plans. We help in both venues.

Most of the families we serve are involved in the special education process, which calls for an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”), but we still have a few who are not eligible for an IEP but are eligible for a 504 Plan. Many parents and educators struggle to understand the difference between these two types of legally binding and enforceable documents, so today’s post/podcast is meant to explain how they are similar and how they are different.

First, it’s important to understand that IEPs and 504 Plans are governed by different sets of laws, but there are some overlaps and key distinctions. IEPs are required for students who qualify for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).  The implementing federal regulations for the IDEA are found at Title 34 Code of the Federal Regulations, Section 300 (“34 CFR Sec. 300”).

Students qualify for special education, and thus IEPs, only when their disabilities rise to the occasion of requiring specialized instruction – that is, a tailoring of the curricula – in order for them to receive meaningful educational benefit. They don’t have to require specialized instruction in all areas of the curricula. For example, a student with dyscalculia may only need specialized instruction in mathematics.

Specialized instruction can be in areas other than just the core curricula, as well, such as in pragmatic language skills to aid in proper communication in the school setting with peers and adults. In many states, for example, speech-language services can be regarded as specialized instruction when it is the only intervention a child needs in order to communicate effectively for educational purposes, such as participating in group learning projects, providing answers to teacher questions verbally in class, participating in whole class discussions, etc.

However, speech-language can also be regarded as a related service rather than specialized instruction if it is being provided in addition to some other form of specialized instruction as a support. Other related services can include physical therapy (“PT”), occupational therapy (“OT”), transportation services, a 1:1 aide, and a host of other supplemental services that complement the delivery of the actual specialized instruction. Whether a service can be regarded as specialized instruction under certain circumstances or is strictly a related service varies from state-to-state. The only thing that is guaranteed to be specialized instruction no matter what state you’re in is specialized academic instruction.

However, if the nature of a student’s disability is such that the student does not require specialized instruction, then he/she is not going to qualify for special education. That does not mean that the child is unprotected. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504” or “504”) has recently been amended to blend into the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), but it has been around since before the ADA.

Section 504 began as a body of civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of handicapping condition by any federal agency or any federally funded entity. Being that our public schools receive federal special education dollars, among other federal funds, they are entirely bound by Section 504.

Section 504 prohibits discrimination, which means that, such as what is required by the ADA across multiple settings, our public schools must provide reasonable accommodation to students with disabilities to the degree necessary to provide them with the same degree of access to education that is being provided to their non-disabled peers. It is meant to be an equalizer.

What some find confusing or otherwise don’t realize is that students who are on IEPs are also protected by 504. Because 504 is a body of civil rights law, not a body of education law per se, to deny a student who is eligible for an IEP of a FAPE is to also discriminate against that student on the basis of handicapping condition.

To complicate matters further, how a FAPE is defined under the IDEA is different from how it is defined under Section 504. Under the IDEA, a FAPE is defined according to several criteria. A FAPE can be denied when any of the following occur:

  • The IEP is not reasonably calculated to render meaningful educational benefit. This is often the argument asserted when the goals are not measurable, the services are inadequate to meet the goals, or the placement offered is not appropriate to the student’s unique needs. If the claim is being asserted right after the faulty IEP was offered, then not enough time has passed for the education agency to implement it (presuming the parents signed their consent to it) and, thus, there is no opportunity to examine whether the child nonetheless received educational benefit in spite of the faulty IEP. If the claim is being asserted after the faulty IEP has been in force for a while, then it may be determined that, despite the procedural failings of the IEP document the child nonetheless experienced meaningful educational benefit and, thus, a FAPE was not denied.
  • The education rendered failed to conform with the IEP. This is the argument asserted when a public education agency fails to implement the IEP as written. In the 9th Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals, it doesn’t matter whether the student nonetheless received educational benefit or not; that legal examination doesn’t even have to be made because a FAPE is automatically denied when the education rendered fails to conform to the IEP. In other Circuits, it still must be proven that the procedural failure denied meaningful educational benefit.
  • The parents were denied their right to meaningful parent participation in the IEP process. This is what happens when public education agencies hold IEP meetings without the parents when the parents have not refused to attend. I’ve seen this happen when school districts offer an IEP meeting on the very last day of a mandatory timeline and it’s not a mutually agreeable date with the parents and they ask to reschedule. The districts are so freaked out about missing the timeline that they’ll hold the IEP meeting without the parents then note in the meeting notes that the meeting is being continued to a date that is mutually agreeable with the parents. However, holding an IEP meeting without the parents is procedurally non-compliant and has been found by the Courts to amount to a denial of a FAPE. It can also be found that if meaningful parent participation has been denied, whether due to excluding the parents from the meeting altogether or simply ignoring their input when they are in attendance, it doesn’t matter if the IEP procedurally complies with the IDEA – a FAPE is denied, plain and simple, because the parents’ rights were infringed upon.
  • The student failed to receive educational benefit. If the IEP was inadequate to deliver meaningful educational benefit or the education rendered failed to conform to the IEP such that the student failed to receive educationally necessary intervention, then a FAPE has been denied.

This is a gross over-simplification of the analysis that must be conducted by a hearing officer or judge when trying a FAPE claim. But it gives you a basic framework.

Section 504, however, defines FAPE differently. It’s implementing regulations are found at 34 CFR Sec. 104. A FAPE under 504 means “the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet individual educational needs of handicapped persons as adequately as the needs of nonhandicapped persons are met.”

The interesting thing about 504 is that it does not prohibit the use of an IEP even if the child doesn’t qualify for special education. It simply doesn’t make an IEP mandatory. Where IEPs require measurable annual goals, meaningful parent participation in the formulation of the document, parental consent prior to implementation, etc., there are no mandatory requirements for these things under 504.

Where the IDEA specifies what must go into the enforceable document (which is required to be an IEP), 504 requires “whatever it takes” to level the playing field for a student with disabilities. This gives public education agencies a lot of latitude to tailor the document to include only what a student exactly needs in order to have equal access to the curricula and participate in school with his/her non-disabled peers.

So, for example, if a student needs occupational therapy due to a handicapping condition (hypotonia, perhaps) to improve his/her fine motor skills for writing and computer keyboarding as well as tying his/her shoes and fastening clothing in the school setting (zipping up a coat in the winter, dressing out in PE, etc.) but doesn’t need specialized instruction to learn something he/she doesn’t already know, he/she wouldn’t qualify for an IEP but would qualify for a 504 Plan that provides for OT. There is a huge misconception on the part of many education agencies that 504 does not provide for services, only classroom accommodations, but this simply is not true. 504 calls for whatever the child needs in order to have equal opportunity to learn and participate in school like everybody else.

Both IEPs and 504 Plans can offer accommodations and many kids on 504 Plans only need accommodations, not specialized instruction, measurable annual goals, or related services. But there are also plenty of kids who need services under their 504 Plans and their school districts don’t realize that they are denying these children a FAPE by failing to provide these services.

How IEPs and 504 Plans are enforced is different as well. Under the IDEA, before a parent can sue the snot out of a school district for special education violations, including civil rights violations arising under Section 504, he/she generally has to exhaust all administrative remedies under the IDEA first. This can include both compliance complaints regarding procedural violations to State education agencies and State-level due process actions. It depends on the situation. Usually, due process has to be exhausted before a civil action can be filed.

Section 504, however, is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) and the federal courts. FAPE claims can be asserted in a 504 complaint to OCR without the need for litigation or any State-level complaints on behalf of students who have either 504 Plans or IEPs. However, if the parent of a student on a 504 Plan decides to sue, there are no prior administrative remedies that must be exhausted. Administrative remedies must only be exhausted before suing under Section 504 if the student is on an IEP.

The lack of the requirement for parental participation in formulation of and consent to 504 Plans leaves the door wide open for public education agencies to abuse the 504 process, but savvy parents realize that this means if things go wrong, the education agency is left holding the bag 100%. Many school districts still use a team approach and involve the parents in the 504 process as a policy because parents who are legitimately involved in the formulation process have something of value to contribute to helping the district comply with 504 and are less likely to sue the district if something goes wrong because they were part of the team that came up with the plan that ended up not working. For this reason, many districts also seek parental consent to 504 Plans just so they have documented proof that the parents thought the 504 Plan was a good idea at the time that it was written.

Whether a child qualifies for an IEP or a 504 Plan, both are legally enforceable documents and both are required to offer a FAPE by at least one definition. Both are essentially contracts that obligate public education agencies to help children with disabilities receive an education. Both can be amended if things aren’t working out and the most effective IEPs and 504 Plans result from positive collaborations between parents and educators.

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13 thoughts on “The Differences Between 504 Plans & IEPs

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author


      It’s not a matter of “should” across the board for every kid with a fine motor problem. It depends on if the fine motor problem is interfering with the child’s performance in school. If he’s being mocked by peers because he can’t zip and button his pants due to fine motor problems, then there is a social/emotional impact that has to be dealt with. If he’s unable to complete writing assignments because of fine motor problems, there is an academic impact.

      If he can nonetheless get by without accommodations or services, then you don’t need a 504 plan. Having an impairment does not automatically qualify any kid for any kind of service; it’s the negative impact on school participation as a result of a disability that qualifies a kid for extra support. The question becomes: “What does the fine motor problem prevent the child from doing in school that everyone else can do without extra help?”

      I have certainly seen 504 plans for kids with fine motor problems, including OT services as part of the 504 plan to address such needs. Many districts think that 504 plans can only include accommodations but that’s not true. A 504 plan can have anything that appears in an IEP including goals and services; it just isn’t automatically required to have everything an IEP has as a matter of procedure.

      What drives the content of a 504 plan is whatever is necessary to give a kid with impairments an even playing field compared to non-disabled peers. It’s about equality in educational opportunity, not giving a kid with special needs some kind of advantage over typical peers. This is why Section 504 is a civil rights body of legislation rather than education law, per se.

      Some school administrators fail to appreciate that leveling the playing field for a child who is disadvantaged due to disability is not the same thing as giving that child an advantage over everybody else. Some parents fail to appreciate the limits placed on school districts to provide nothing more than an equal opportunity rather than the best education possible. It’s when a school district fails to provide an equal opportunity to a child with disabilities that problems can develop.


      1. Karla

        Thank you for your help. My son is having issues with fine motor skills delay and OT was recommended for him, but not accommodated by the school district, as is with other children. Here, they say you have to “qualify” for OT by having more than one delay or disability, such as Speech Therapy combined with Occupational Therapy. We had to seek private OT and it is frustrating because he could be getting the help he needs at school daily, without loss of time at work for me and traveling back and forth to therapy. I am not so worried about him this school year because he is in K5; I am worried about next year and as writing increases in school work. He recently just learned to hold a pencil, fork and spoon correctly but still struggles at times. Thanks again!

        1. Anne M. Zachry Post author


          According to your IP address, “here” is in South Carolina. I strongly suspect that your District is speaking strictly to your state’s special education requirements. There are no limits placed on section 504, which is governed strictly by federal law and with which state law cannot interfere, as you’ve described.

          Your son could still qualify for OT through a 504 plan provided that you can demonstrate that his activities of daily living are impacted by his fine motor delays. If he is still struggling with holding a pencil and eating utensils, he is probably also struggling with zipping his pants, tying his shoes, accessing his learning materials, etc. Contact your local OCR office (see contact info, below) to find out what you can do to get a 504 plan that provides for OT services for school-related needs, which includes self-help skills like zipping pants and tying shoes as well as handwriting.

          The OCR office for South Carolina is located at:

          Washington DC (Metro)
          Office for Civil Rights
          U.S. Department of Education
          400 Maryland Avenue, SW
          Washington, D.C. 20202-1475

          Telephone: 202-453-6020
          FAX: 202-453-6021; TDD: 877-521-2172


          Good luck! I hope this helps.


  1. Roderick Zion

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  2. Jen Vogel

    Thank you so much for this information about 504 plans! It was very helpful. IEPs have timelines of when they need to be updated, etc. Do 504’s? Is there specific paperwork to fill out for 504’s, or is that dependent on school districts’ preferences?

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author


      Unless your state has specific timelines to the 504 process, then by default you’re working off the federal regulations and they have no timelines. That’s a drawback because many states really don’t have timelines specifically for 504 plans. I recommend contacting your state’s department of education and asking if there are any timelines applicable to the 504 process under state law.


  3. Maria Alamin

    Thanks for the great information. That clears alot up for me. I thought once a child had an IEP they were no longer subject to protection under 504.

    -Maria, California

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author


      A lot of people are confused by that. I had a big “Ohhhhhhh!” moment when I finally understood several years ago how 504 works. Plus, now that we have more 504 cases, I’m having to use this information more often, so it stays fresher in my mind.



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