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How Is a 504 Plan Different From an IEP?

If your child is struggling in school and you have been wondering what support is available to them, you may have heard people refer to IEPs and 504 Plans as interventions designed to assist struggling students in New Jersey. Not every student that needs extra help in school qualifies for an IEP or 504 Plan, and our New Jersey education attorneys can explain what the difference is and which might be right for your child.

IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan and at its core, it is a roadmap for educating a student with disabilities who requires specialized instruction and related services to receive the benefit of their school experience. IEPs are also legal documents that are binding on school districts and are enforceable through legal proceedings. An experienced New Jersey education lawyer will often assist with this process. A 504 Plan is an educational plan to address disabled students’ needs for accommodations, modifications, and related services to ensure they have equal access to their education as compared to their nondisabled peers. Its name derives from the federal law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitiation Act of 1973 (Section 504), that prohibits disability discrimination in schools that receive federal funds.

The major similarities and differences between IEPs and 504 Plans are:

  1. They are both mandated by law. IEPs fall under the purview of the state education code as well as the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA). As noted, 504 Plans derive from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  2. BUT they have distinctly different purposes. The IDEA is a funding statute, which guarantees to students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) by implementation of an IEP that ensures that each student receives some educational benefit. Students with disabilities are considered to be receiving an educational benefit when they are making progress toward written, measurable goals and objectives designed to address their unique needs. Section 504, on the other hand, is an anti-discrimination law, and it guarantees students with disabilities equal educational opportunities when compared to their nondisabled peers. Schools can meet their obligations under Section 504 by creating 504 Plans to ensure equal access.
  3. Both IEPs and 504 Plans are intended to create a FAPE.
  4. BUT, the definition of FAPE is different under the IDEA and Section 504. A FAPE pursuant to an IEP is not focused on equal opportunity, but on conferring an educational benefit. IEPs do not have to be designed to level the playing field between disabled and nondisabled students. A FAPE pursuant to Section 504 is an education that is designed to meet the needs of the student with a disability as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met. Again, IEPs are about making progress and Section 504 is about equality.
  5. Both IEPs and 504 Plans contain accommodations and modifications necessary for the student to access their education. Accommodations are adjustments to the nature of work or tools provided to the student to help them cope with the demands of the school environment. They might include behavioral support like meetings with a school counselor to develop social and emotional skills, or the chunking of large assignments into smaller tasks to assist with executive functioning skills. Modifications are alterations to the environment or the work that make it possible for the student to participate with their peers. Modifications can be physical or architectural, like adding wheelchair ramps to previously inaccessible classrooms, or they can be academic, like converting word problems to math equations for a student with reading comprehension difficulties.
  6. BUT only IEPs contain specific, measurable, time-based goals by which a student’s progress must be monitored. 504 Plans are often a list of accommodations and modifications, together with related supports and services that level the playing field for a student with a disability so they can access their education just the same as their peers. IEPs are generally much more detailed and contain annual goals, each with their own short-term objectives that direct the individual student’s education. These goals and objectives must follow the general education curriculum as closely as possible while still conferring an educational benefit on the student. Often, students with complex needs have IEP goals that are notably different from typical academic expectations for their age such as goals related to daily living skills, fine motor control, or significantly modified academic work. IEP goals must be measurable so that the student’s progress can be monitored and a FAPE is ensured.

If you think your child needs accommodations in school or more targeted and individualized instruction to access their education, reach out for a consultation with one of our New Jersey education lawyers.

DISCLAIMER: The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.
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