From the Council for Exceptional Children
An Overview of IDEA and Section 504
Since 1975, every child with a disability has been entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) designed to meet his individual needs under the rules and regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This federal law governs all special education services and provides some funding to state and local education agencies to guarantee special education and related services for those students who meet the criteria for eligibility in a number of distinct categories of disability, each of which has its own criteria.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 5.5 million children with disabilities receive special education and related services and are protected by IDEA. However, some kids with special needs do not receive services under IDEA, but are served under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504, a civil rights law, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disabling conditions by programs and activities receiving or benefiting from federal financial assistance. This statute does not require the federal government to provide additional funding for students identified with special needs. Schools must provide these children with reasonable accommodations comparable to those provided to their peers under the rulings of Section 504. Although not a financing statute, Section 504 does provide for enforcement of the mandate: A school that is found by the Office of Civil Rights to be out of compliance with Section 504 may lose its federal financing.
For some children, providing the appropriate modifications and accommodations they need is the only way they will be successful in their school experiences. A thorough understanding of the provisions of these two laws and how they differ can help you and your child's teachers plan the most appropriate education for your child.
An Overview of the Differences
The major differences between IDEA and Section 504 are in the flexibility of the procedures. For a child to be identified as eligible for services under Section 504, there are less specific procedural criteria that govern the requirements of the school personnel. Schools may offer a student less assistance and monitoring with Section 504 because there are fewer regulations by the federal government to instruct them, especially in terms of compliance.
In contrast, a child identified for services under IDEA must meet specific criteria. The degree of regulation is more specific in terms of time frames, parental participation, and formal paperwork requirements. IDEA also addresses the special education of students with disabilities from preschool to graduation only (from ages 3 to 21). Section 504 covers the lifespan and safeguards the rights of persons with disabilities in many areas of their lives, including employment, public access to buildings, transportation, and education.
The criteria for identification, eligibility, appropriate education, and due process procedures under IDEA and Section 504 vary. It is important for you and your child's teachers to understand how these laws differ, and how those differences could affect your child's education.
Identification and Eligibility
In order for children with disabilities to receive services, they must by identified and then determined to be eligible for these services. Under IDEA guidelines, school districts are required to identify and evaluate all children suspected of having a disability whose families reside within the district. Section 504 does not have this requirement.
A child with a disability is assessed to determine what services, if any, are needed.
Responsibility to Provide FAPE
FAPE is an acronym for a Free and Appropriate Education.
Due Process Procedures
Sometimes parents and school districts disagree about how a child with disabilities should be educated. When this happens, there are procedures in place to handle these disagreements.
Adapted from "Understanding the Differences Between IDEA and Section 504," Teaching Exceptional Children, vol. 34, no. 3, Jan/Feb 2002, published by Council for Exceptional Children.