Having worked in Special Education for so long, I have been asked many times, “What’s the difference between 504 and Special Education?”. And I’m excited since this topic will allow me to delve into both. Also, this post may be a little heavier with legal terms and laws, so here is my obligatory glossary and disclaimer: Sped Acronyms and Glossary of Terms. As usual, please remember this is based on my experiences in Texas and Louisiana. Laws can change (it’s been over 5 years since I taught in La) so make sure you are referring to your district's and state’s policies and procedures.
Please keep in mind that all children with disabilities have a right to a “free and appropriate public education” or FAPE, this was established in 1975 by the IDEA or the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Basically, this just means if a child meets the criteria, they are guaranteed special education services.
Section 504, however, is a civil rights law passed under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It states that schools have to provide reasonable accommodations that are comparable to peers BUT it does not require the federal government to provide any additional funding. However, if states do not comply, they are able to lose funding. While there are some similarities, the three main differences are the length of time needed, the number of regulations, and the funding.
According to the US Department of Education the three requirements for 504 are:
1. Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
2. Have a record of such an impairment
3. Be regarded as having such an impairment
A very simple case of someone needing 504 temporarily could be that they have broken their writing hand and are in need of accommodations and/or modifications (more information on this here). However, there are also students with more significant and/or long-term diagnoses that can utilize it as well.
A 504 plan is created by a team of people who are familiar with the learner and have looked over the evaluation data. This team may include the parent, general ed and/or special ed teacher, and the school principal. Parent consent is required to evaluate, but accommodations are able to be put in place with a doctor’s recommendation or through qualified professionals.
A 504 plan, while flexible, may include specific accommodations, names of who will provide services, and the name of the responsible party insuring the plan.
Conversely, Special Education is typically something that, once diagnosed, will probably stay with the learner till they graduate and in this case, there are specific criteria that need to be met. In addition, 504 covers the lifespan of the individual in these long-term cases, while Special Education only covers ages 3-21, or essentially, their school career.
Now let’s get into the requirements for Special Education. For starters, IDEA requires school districts to identify and evaluate all children in the district who are suspected of having a disability. This is NOT required for 504.
Under IDEA, special education requires that the students have one or more of 13 possible disabilities. This disability must affect the child’s educational performance and their ability to learn and benefit from gen ed the curriculum. Once diagnosed (either from a doctor or school testing), your learner should have an IEP plan that maps out their schedule, goals, accommodations, testing, present levels, etc.
This photo was taken from http://sboe.dc.gov pdf
Special Education plans must include the child’s present levels of academic and functional performance, annual education goals and how they are tracked, services to be received, timing of services (when, how long, etc), accommodations (changes to the environment), modifications (changes to what the child is expected to learn), and time spent in general ed versus special ed (schedule).
States do receive additional funding for special education eligible students. IDEA funds however are not available for learners with 504 plans.
Parental consent is required for evaluation, and an evaluation must be done to determine eligibility. And the parents must also approve the services recommended from the evaluation, prior to their start.
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