Both Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans can offer formal help for K–12 students who are struggling in school. They’re similar in some ways but very different in others. This chart compares them side by side to help you understand the differences.
A blueprint or plan for a child’s special education experience at school.
A blueprint or plan for how the school will provide support and remove barriers for a student with a disability.
What it does
Provides individualized special education and related services to meet a child’s unique needs. These services are provided at no cost to families.
Provides services and changes to the learning environment to enable students to learn alongside their peers. As with an IEP, a 504 plan is provided at no cost to families.
What law applies
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): This is a federal special education law for children with disabilities.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: This is a federal civil rights law to stop discrimination against people with disabilities.
To get an IEP, there are two requirements: A child has one or more of the 13 disabilities listed in IDEA. The law lists specific challenges, like learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and others. And the disability must affect the child’s educational performance and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum. The child must need specialized instruction to make progress in school.
To get a 504 plan, there are two requirements: A child has any disability. Section 504 covers a wide range of different struggles in school. And the disability must interfere with the child’s ability to learn in a general education classroom. Section 504 has a broader definition of a disability than IDEA. (It says a disability must substantially limit one or more basic life activities. This can include learning, reading, communicating, and thinking.) That’s why a child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might still be able to get a 504 plan.
Independent educational evaluation
Families can ask the school district to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) by an outside expert. The district doesn’t have to agree. Families can always pay for an outside evaluation themselves, but the district may not give it much weight.
Doesn’t allow families to ask for an IEE. As with an IEP evaluation, families can always pay for an outside evaluation themselves.
Who creates it
There are strict legal requirements about who participates. With a few exceptions, the entire IEP team must be present for IEP meetings. The team must include:
• The child’s parent or caregiver
• At least one of the child’s general education teachers
• At least one special education teacher
• A school psychologist or other specialist who can interpret evaluation results
• A district representative with authority over special education services
The rules about who’s on the 504 team are less specific than they are for an IEP. A 504 plan is created by a team of people who are familiar with the child and who understand the evaluation data and special services options. This might include:
• The child’s parent or caregiver
• General and special education teachers
• The school principal
What’s in it
The IEP sets learning goals and describes the services the school will provide. It’s a written document. Here are some of the most important things the IEP must include:
• The child’s present levels of academic and functional performance — how the child is currently doing in school
• Annual education goals for the child and how the school will track progress
• The services the child will get — this may include special education, related, supplementary, and extended school year services
• The timing of services — when they start, how often they occur, and how long they last
• Any accommodations — changes to the child’s learning environment
• Any modifications — changes to what the child is expected to learn or know
• How the child will participate in standardized tests
• How the child will be included in general education classes and school activities
There is no standard 504 plan. Unlike an IEP, a 504 plan doesn’t have to be a written document. A 504 plan generally includes the following:
• Specific accommodations, supports, or services for the child
• Names of who will provide each service
• Name of the person responsible for ensuring the plan is implemented
When the school wants to change a child’s services or placement, it has to tell families in writing before the change. This is called prior written notice. Notice is also required for any IEP meetings and evaluations. Families also have “stay put” rights to keep services in place while there’s a disagreement about the IEP.
The school must notify families about an evaluation or a “significant change” in placement. Notice doesn’t have to be in writing, but most schools do so anyway.
A parent or caregiver must consent in writing for the school to evaluate a child. They must also consent in writing before the school can provide the services in an IEP.
A parent or caregiver’s consent is required for the school district to evaluate a child.
How often it’s reviewed and revised
The IEP team must review the IEP at least once a year. The child must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether services are still needed.
The rules vary by state. Generally, a 504 plan is reviewed each year and a reevaluation is done every three years or when needed.
How to resolve disputes
IDEA gives families several ways to resolve disputes (usually in this order):
• Due process complaint
• Resolution session
• Civil lawsuit
• State complaint
Section 504 gives families several options for resolving disagreements with the school:
• Alternative dispute resolution
• Impartial hearing
• Complaint to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR)
Students receive these services at no charge. States receive additional funding for students with IEPs.
Students receive these services at no charge. States do not receive extra funding for students with 504 plans. But the federal government can take funding away from programs (including schools) that don’t meet their legal duty to serve kids with disabilities. IDEA funds can’t be used to serve students with 504 plans.
Knowing which laws do what is a big part of understanding the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan. Learn more about special education terms. If you’re a teacher, learn five important things to look for in an IEP and how to read a 504 plan.
And if you need help navigating special education law in your state, consider reaching out to your local Parent Training and Information Center. The people there can answer questions and give practical advice on issues specific to your area.
See a visual aid that shows what goes into an IEP. Or you can download a sample 504 plan.
Do you want to learn more about how IEPs and 504 plans compare? Watch as an expert explains the differences between them.
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About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.