Families of children are often asked this question- do you want an IEP or a 504 plan? Families are confused as to which is the better way for their child to get the help he or she needs. Each approach offers some benefits and some drawbacks.
The IEP or Individual Educational Program is authorized under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). In order to be eligible for an IEP the child needs to be diagnosed with one of the disabilities defined in the law itself. Then the child needs to need special education in order to benefit from the general education program and progress from grade to grade. So there are two requirements before a family even gets to decide if they will accept the IEP. First the disability and then the need for special education.
The IEP is supposed to be individual to the child, often it is not so parents need to pay close attention to make sure they are not getting a boiler plate document. Or worse, getting something that is aligned with what the school has to offer as opposed to what the child needs. Under the law a school or school system must provide what the child needs. So for example, if a child needs speech therapy three days a week but the therapist is only in the school one day a week, the IEP cannot be modified to match what is already available. Instead the system must find a way to get the child the service. That method can be bringing extra therapy into the child's school or moving the child to a school where the service is provided. One of the most important parts of an IEP is the description of the related services a child needs, the amount of that service and a description of the setting in which those services will be provided. The IEP should also name the qualifications of the provider. A child might need counseling but the school system does not have a psychologist or social worker available so it might provide that counseling with a pupil personnel worker. Parents need to be well aware of the training of any alternative providers.
The IEP is a formal contract for service between the family and the school system. If the school system does not provide the services it has committed to, the parents have the right to request a mediation or due process hearing to assure those services. The IEP is NOT a contract for achievement. If the instructional goals are not attained as described, families may request changes to the services to try to improve outcomes but it cannot request a mediation or due process for more achievement.
Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act applies to all organizations that receive federal funding. A 504 plan for children with disabilities describes accommodations to the instructional program that will hopefully improve learning outcomes for the child. In order to receive these accommodations a child does not have to be specifically diagnosed with a disability. The lack of the need for a specific diagnosis is one of the big benefits that many people see in the 504 plan. Many times the school system will recommend this approach as a way to avoid having a disability label in a child's "permanent record". The fact is that once a child graduates, the school system only keeps basic demographic information, dates of attendance, a transcript of the high school record and any awards that were received. So the diagnoses would only remain on a child's record through high school. Under the 504 plan, parents have no right to due process; nor is the 504 plan a contract for service. Therefore, should a school or system fail to provide the services or accommodations in the plan the family's only recourse is to complain, but it cannot compel the system to provide the services.
On the other hand, the IEP is a contract and provides families with the right to due process should the system fail to fulfill its part of the bargain and gives parents the right to request differing services to improve outcomes.
Is it all that bad for a child to carry a diagnostic label? That is for each family to decide, but the truth is with or without the label, the child has educational problems. Doesn't it make sense to pick the approach that gives the most bang for the name.