Published On: Monday, October 17, 2016|Categories: Education Info, Parents, Tenney Subscribers|

Every child is unique with specific learning styles and learning methods that are just as distinct.  Modern education has trained us to view these differences as something to fear or avoid. Wouldn’t education be far simpler if every student learned the exact same way or at the same pace?  This type of mentality is false and damaging to children.  If our children are to flourish in their education and rise to their potential we must not only understand these learning differences but also how to accommodate and provide for these differences.

Parents who seek additional educational assistance for their children are presented with two basic options: SpEd, also known as Special Education, and 504, referring to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although similar in some ways, there are distinct differences between SpED and 504 such as laws, qualifications, funding, restrictions, and efficiency. These differences are at times overwhelming and parents may feel frustrated as they struggle to find and understand what program is best for their child.  By examining each of the key differences between SpED and 504, parents can successfully unravel the confusion and best understand their choices.

Laws and Basic Definition

  • SpED –  SpED operates under the authority of Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).  This law promises all children with disabilities the opportunity of free and public education regardless of what disabilities or special limitations they possess. This law guarantees that the education they receive is appropriate for their individual needs and completely free for parents and guardians. To receive SpED resources, students must possess an Individual Education Program (IEP). There will be more information on this below, but the IEP is created once an Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee meets and approves SpED services for the student.
  • 504 – This program also operates under its own specific law.  Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Federal law protects all individuals from discrimination based on their disability or specific needs. This law mandates all school districts to provide the necessary changes or accommodations for every student. Similar to SpED, this program creates a specific “plan” for students, their parent/guardian, and the school official to ensure that all needs are met and protected.

Qualifications and Benefits

  • SpED – This program has a stricter definition of a disability special accommodation.  In order for a student to qualify for this program they must fall within the 13 disabilities listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and explained by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), an organization funded by the US Department of Education. These categories include impairments such as autism, deafness, and traumatic brain injury. Because a student disability or accommodation must fall within this category, the program is much more limited.  Students may possess needs that do not fall within the 13 categories listed. However, this program is still very beneficial for many and as of 2014, 6.5 million students, roughly 13% of the total school enrollment was assisted by this program.
  • 504 – Because this program has a broader definition of disabilities and impairments, many students who do not qualify for SpED may fall within this program’s requirements. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as anything that significantly impairs an individual’s ability.  Students with ADHD and other emotional or cognitive difficulties fall within this category. Based on what accommodations are needed, this program allows school officials and students to form specific plans to help minimize learning difficulties. Students can still take part in general education curriculum, but are given the necessary tools to succeed.


  • SpED – Because both programs are distinctly different, their funding is also unique. SpED receives federal funds equal to the amount they previous received during the fiscal year of 1999. Each state must keep its level of state funding the same every year.
  • 504 – Funding is more complicated for 504.  Although school districts are required to provide the necessary accommodations and assistance, they are given no additional, special funding to do so.  This differs from the federal funds they are given for SpED. Many schools struggle to meet these financial obligations. School districts that do not comply with the educational needs of students may be sued or fined by the government. School districts walk a fine line, balancing the needs of their students and the additional, non-funded expenses for doing so.

Requesting Services

  • SpED – After understanding some of the basic differences behind these programs, the next step is requesting the appropriate services.  Parents/guardians who wish to enroll their child in a SpEd program must request a formal evaluation from the child’s teacher, school psychologist, and principal. Within the next 60 days, the district will decide on appropriate evaluation. Performance tests such as the Woodcock Johnson, Third Edition (WJIII) or the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) are given in addition to other cognitive function tests. The results of the evaluation(s) will be reported in the Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee meeting.  The 13 disability categories will also be examined to see if your child fits any associated parameters. After the assessment is complete and your child fits the necessary requirements, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed within 30 days of the completed assessment. This program will be reviewed annually by the child’s special education teacher, district representative, general teacher, school psychologist, and other necessary therapists based on the disability.  The parent is also encouraged to attend. The IEP itself is very specific and detailed.  It is a formal, legally binding document and contract between you as the parent/guardian, the child, and the school administrators.
  • 504 – If your child is not eligible for SpEd, the school district will suggest application for a 504 program.  Every state is different concerning this application process. However, similar to SpED, an evaluation and assessment will be performed and detailed information will be gathered.  An IEP will also be developed for your child. However, unlike a SpED IEP, there is no set standard for a 504 IEP.  The definitions are much loser, but it will include the specific accommodations needed, the child’s care-providers, and the name or names of those who will carry out the accommodations.

Both SpEd and 504 programs are extremely beneficial for students.  Many students have risen to their potential and experienced great success from the assistance these plans provide.  Because each program is so details in nature, always check with your state’s school district for additional information and details specific to your state before taking any program enrollment steps.  First and foremost, talk with your child about the limitations or difficulties they are experiencing.  Find out what tools they feel they personally need to succeed.  For more information on these programs and how they can benefit your child, please contact us today.

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