Often, around the time of parent-teacher conferences at the end of the first quarter or trimester of the school year, many parents become aware that their child is struggling in school. Sometimes teachers or school staff identify areas where a student is lagging behind their classmates. Sometimes parents assisting their children with schoolwork note that their child is not understanding grade-level concepts. Sometimes students themselves share their frustration with parents: whether it be refusing to go to school, statements that school is too hard, outbursts at home, or complaints about teachers or classmates. At this point in the school year, parents may reach out to the school for a special education evaluation.

When a student needs educational support, accommodations, or specialized instruction, the next steps can seem overwhelming. In their evaluation process, school districts may ask parents if they are seeking an IEP or a 504 plan. Parents are frequently confused by the differences and interactions between IEPs and 504 plans. While the two often overlap, they each have their own requirements. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has a number of resources available, including a comparison chart to help illustrate the differences. falleader-2019-30-Section_504-IDEA_Comparison_Chart.pdf (wi.gov)


A 504 plan refers to section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Section 504 has a wide scope that extends further than just the K-12 classroom. 504 plans can not only extend well into college but can also be applicable to employees in a workplace. Once a 504 plan is in place, it becomes a legal requirement for the school/employer to follow.

Students do not need to qualify for special education to qualify for a 504. Eligibility for a 504 plan instead requires that a student have a diagnosis for a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities, such as being able to hear a teacher.

504 plans provide basic accommodations and supports to students with special needs. A 504 plan may allow a student to record and playback lectures and lessons. A 504 plan could require that a student sit at the front of a classroom or lecture hall so as not to be distracted by peers. A 504 plan could allow a student to resubmit assignments until they get a passing grade or allow for re-taking of tests to correct previously made errors. The possibilities for a 504 plan are limitless. However, a 504 plan does not go so far as to provide a separate instructional environment for a student.

Schools will generally start with informal accommodations and will create a 504 plan if informal accommodations are unsuccessful or not universally applied by teachers. If the accommodations provided in the 504 plan do not provide what the student needs, the school may look at specialized instruction, and thus, an IEP.

Learn more about 504 plans and guidelines here: Protecting Students With Disabilities (ed.gov).


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures that students with a variety of disabilities are provided with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that meets their unique education needs. The method of providing each student with FAPE is an IEP (Individualized Education Program). IEPs provide students who have a specific disability with specially designed instruction. A student must meet one of 13 specific disability categories (found here: Special Education Disability Categories | Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) to qualify for an IEP. Under IDEA, an IEP can be implemented in students from age 3 through high school graduation. In rare occasions, IEPs are extended to students until age 21 while they seek a high school diploma. These IEPs often focus more on college or career readiness: Individualized Education Program (IEP): Preparing Students for College and Career | Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. IEPs can provide classroom accommodations like a 504, but they go further than 504 plans, providing modification of curriculum, specialized instruction, and related services, if needed.

An IEP will not be put in place until after an evaluation. Any parent or teacher can request an evaluation of a student. The evaluation is focused on determining the needs resulting from the disability’s effect on the student’s academic and functional skill areas. Data is collected and interpreted by professionals and will consider systemic, racial, and other types of bias. When an evaluation is requested, there is a strict timeline for the school to follow: Special Education Timeline (wi.gov).

Once the evaluation has been completed by school staff, the school district convenes the IEP team. Parents are required members of the team, along with a general education instructor, a special education instructor, and a Local Educational Agency (LEA) representative who is authorized to allocate services for the school district. If a student has other specialized needs (e.g., speech or occupational therapy), those providers are also members of the IEP team, and their attendance is required. The student is also a member of the team and should attend if appropriate. The IEP team reviews the data to determine both eligibility of the student and whether the student requires specialized instruction to support their disability related needs. Sometimes a student may meet eligibility for a disability area; however, they do not require specialized instruction. Once a student is found to be eligible for an IEP, the team crafts a plan for the student that addresses the areas of disability related needs.

It is important for parents to remember that they are part of the IEP team, and what they have to say matters. If the parents cannot attend an IEP meeting, they may submit written notes to the school district for use in the IEP. Parents can bring whoever they want to an IEP meeting. If the parents wish to bring someone even for emotional support or comfort, they have the right to do so (although they may want to check with the student first).

Unlike a 504 plan, the IEP starts with a baseline of where the student is at and includes narrowly tailored goals to help the student improve. An IEP should use Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals (“SMART” goals). In order to properly develop these goals, the IEP team should evaluate the baseline, or where the student is at, and then develop goals as to what the student can reasonably achieve over the academic year. Goals should be challenging, but not impossible.

If the IEP calls for a specific learning style or program, remember that while the school district has the right and responsibility to choose the appropriate curriculum, parents can voice their frustrations and advocate for something different. If specialized instruction will be provided to a student, parents can ensure that the teachers engaging in such instruction have the required training and certification. The IEP must put the student in the least restrictive environment, allowing as much exposure to general education settings as possible.

The IEP is a legal document. The school is legally required to follow the terms of the IEP. If an IEP specifies specialized instruction for 10 minutes per day, the school can face serious repercussions if they fail to provide 10 minutes of specialized instruction per day.

Interested in learning more? The Wisconsin DPI provides a comprehensive policy model for schools to follow as they administer and develop IEPs. That model can be found here: policy-model.pdf (wi.gov). Or, reach out to us on our website (www.lawcenterwisconsin.com) and schedule a consultation with one of our school law attorneys.

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The Law Center