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Section 504 Compared to IDEA

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) is federal civil rights law that was enacted to eliminate discrimination on the basis of handicap.  It provides a great deal of protection for children with disabilities that is often overlooked, especially when a child has been determined to be eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Compliance with Section 504 is mandatory for all schools that receive any federal funds. 


IDEA is federal funding legislation that partially reimburses the cost public school districts incur when they provide free, appropriate, public, education (FAPE) as required in Section 504.  IDEA requirements apply to states receiving financial assistance under IDEA.  Congress created IDEA in 1975 because no funding was provided under Section 504.


Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

Both Section 504 and IDEA have requirements for schools to provide FAPE.  Under Section 504, a child, who has been evaluated according to the regulations and is deemed to be qualified and eligible, is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE).  For the purpose of Section 504, "the provision of an appropriate education is the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet individual educational needs of handicapped persons as adequately as the needs of nonhandicapped persons are met."  (Title 34 Education, Part 104 -- Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Handicap in Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance, Subpart D -- Preschool, Elementary, and Secondary Education, 104.33 (b)(1)(i)) 

The requirements for FAPE under IDEA are much more detailed than those under Section 504.


Requirements for FAPE

The following link provides in depth information on all aspects of FAPE under Section 504 Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities Requirements Under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973


The requirements for FAPE under IDEA for residents of Ohio are provided in  the Ohio Operating Standards for the Education of Children with Disabilities


Section 504 Plans and IEPs

IDEA requires schools to develop an Individual Education Program (IEP) for each child who is determined to be eligible. IEPs are uniform in their format (by state).  IEPs must be very specific in addressing the unique needs of each child.    


Section 504 regulations do not require schools to develop written plans for qualified students who are determined to be eligible through an evaluation.  Schools simply must not discriminate on the basis of disability and must provide FAPE for qualified, eligible students.  Most schools, nevertheless, do provide written plans.  These Section 504 plans provide documentation of the school's efforts to provide FAPE for qualified, eligible students.  Plans typically include information regarding the child's qualification and eligibility under Section 504, a listing of the regular or special education the child receives, any related aids and services, and any accommodations or modifications that are provided.  

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Monitoring Achievement for Students with Disabilities

As indicated above, Section 504 does not require schools to provide an Individualized Education Program (IEP), including present levels of performance, measurable annual goals, and specially  designed instruction to meet a child's unique needs.  However, given what the Supreme Court has stated on two separate occasions regarding what constitutes FAPE under IDEA, the absence of an IEP requirement in Section 504 may not be as significant as it may seem  to be at first glance. 


The Supreme Court, in its landmark Rowley decision (Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, (1982)), determined that IEPs must only provide a child with some educational benefit and do not have to maximize the child's potentialThe Court found that "A 'free appropriate public education' consists of educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child 'to benefit' from instruction . . ."  The Rowley standard was clarified, but not replaced,  by the Court in its 2017 Endrew F decision (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1, 137 S.Ct. 988). In this decision, the Court determined that FAPE under IDEA only requires "an individual program that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances." 


What IEP goals, objectives, and specially designed instruction address is often assumed to be much more than they actually do.  IEP goals and objectives usually only address students' need to improve isolated, very specific, below par academic skills.  Only rarely do IEP goals and objectives address students' general educational achievement relative to academic content standards.  IEP goals and objectives are better than nothing.  But they are too often not written so as to insure that the individual educational needs of handicapped students are met as adequately as the needs of their nonhandicapped peers are met. Section 504 regulations do not require progress monitoring of educational achievement. Unless there is some valid, ongoing comparison of the academic achievement of children with disabilities to the achievement of their non-disabled peers, it cannot be determined that "the individual educational needs of handicapped persons" are being met "as adequately as the needs of nonhandicapped persons are met?"


The absence of progress monitoring in Section 504 regulations, and the frequent lack of academic content standard goals in IEPs can, however, be addressed.  This can be done by combining the protection contained in Section 504 with the accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA).  The ESSA requires annual statewide assessments.  By using individual and group data from ESSA, in addition to local progress monitoring, schools can be held accountable to ensure that children who are eligible and qualify under Section 504, including those who are under an IEP, not only have their needs to be able to access to the general education curriculum met as adequately as the needs of nonhandicapped persons, but also have their need to in fact learn what is in it met as well as the need of  their nonhandicapped peers to do so!


Questions About Section 504

For answers to frequently asked questions about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the education of children with disabilities, click on the link below to the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights website  Protecting Children With Disabilities   If you have additional questions about Section 504, we will assist you to understand how this law may apply to your child's situation. 


Please contact us for additional information.


Note:  Millwood Group LLC is not a law firm and does not provide legal advice or legal services.