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Thousands of Public Schools Aren’t Using 504 Plans, New Analysis Suggests

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD on

Thousands of public schools across the country aren’t using 504 plans, according to a new analysis. On the flip side, some public schools actively use them. In some schools, as many as 20 to 30 percent of students have 504 plans. This analysis raises concerns about why the use of 504 plans varies so much.

Nationally, around 2.3 percent of students have 504 plans. That percentage has been rising since 2009, when Congress expanded who qualifies for the plans. But it doesn’t tell the whole story about what’s happening at the local level.

That’s why Professor Perry Zirkel of Lehigh University decided to look at local schools. He worked with the U.S. government’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) from the 2015–2016 academic year. The CRDC is a biennial survey on public schools across the country.

Zirkel found that 12,229 public schools don’t have a single 504 plan. Also, 327 public school districts don’t have 504 plans at all. That’s one out of every eight public schools and school districts nationally, according to Zirkel. The analysis excludes small schools and districts. So those numbers could be even higher.

According to Zirkel, there seems to be a “dramatically significant pattern of suspected underidentification.” In other words, a lot of kids who could be eligible for 504 plans might not have them.

It’s possible that some of these kids have instead. IEP eligibility varies a lot from state to state. Eligibility for 504 plans is more uniform across the country.

But, Zirkel says, it would be “highly improbable” for all these schools and districts to not have any kids with food allergies, diabetes, anxiety disorders or mild ADHD. These issues typically qualify kids for only a 504 plan.

Zirkel also found a smaller group of schools and districts with high rates of 504 plans. The school with the highest rate of 504 plans was a charter school in Louisiana. Around 35 percent of students at that school had 504 plans.

School districts in Texas also had high rates of 504 plans. In fact, of the 50 districts with the highest 504 plan rates, half were in Texas. That could be significant. The federal government recently found that Texas wrongly denied special education services to thousands of kids.

Zirkel doesn’t think the wide difference in rates is due to an error in the CRDC data. He does say, though, that multiple factors may be at play. That includes how wealthy a school is or how involved parents are. The biggest factor, Zirkel says, may be awareness or knowledge of 504 plans. Some school officials may not know how to determine if a child qualifies for a 504 plan.

You can check the CDRC data for the rate of 504 plans at your local school. If you have concerns, consider printing and sharing with the school a fact sheet on Section 504. This is the law that covers 504 plans. You can also follow these steps to getting a 504 plan for your child.

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