The number of students receiving services under the IDEA has increased at a rate outpacing the growth of the total school population. Simultaneously, the cost of providing special education services has outpaced per-student spending for all students. The logistical challenges presented by these increases have strained departments of education and school districts across the country. This is well documented. A less examined phenomenon is a possible increase in the number of 504 plans and what this increase might mean for schools.
Not all students with disabilities qualify for services under IDEA. A disabling condition must sufficiently interfere with access to the general education program for special education services to be necessary. It also must fall under one of the disability categories described in IDEA. Multidisciplinary teams make decisions about the needs of a student based on IDEA’s criteria. For students who don’t qualify but do have a condition that affects learning, a 504 plan might be appropriate.
Students get IEPs according to IDEA. Students get 504 plans according to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A student with a 504 plan alone does not receive special education services, but does receive individually tailored accommodations. Section 504 is more closely aligned with the ADA than with IDEA. Although it affects schools, it is a civil rights protection more than an education law (the Department of Justice oversees complaints). IEPs and 504 plans each grant access, but 504 plans have more to do with granting access to the educational environment than to the general education curriculum. The assumption is students with 504 plans follow the general education curriculum with presentation accommodations more than with the program modifications an IEP might allow.
Everything about 504 plans—from the qualifying criteria to the protections afforded—is less specific and less encompassing than IEPs. However, Section 504 covers a broader range of conditions than IDEA covers. Thus, a broader range of students is eligible for 504 plans than is eligible for IEPs. Revisions to Section 504 have expanded coverage to include a variety of mental health and attention-related conditions that generally aren’t addressed under special education law. Students with generalized anxiety, depression, or attention disorders can qualify for 504 plans. Students with physical disabilities also can qualify. Reportedly, health conditions such as food allergies have been enough to qualify some students. Whatever the condition may be, teams write the plans according to needs, just as IEPs teams do.
The scope of an IEP ends when a student exits high school or a team determines services are no longer needed. A student can present an IEP to a college’s disability office, but this office isn’t bound to offer any of the accommodations listed in the document. This is a key difference between IEPs and 504 plans. Any entity receiving federal funding must acknowledge and respond to what is in a 504 plan. The diagnosis is what is most important, but the plan carries significant weight. The plans follow students through college and even into the workplace in some cases (other parts of the Act along with ADA often takeover in the workplace). Because of this, 504 plans are attractive for parents looking to get extra support for their college-bound child. Students can have IEPs and 504 plans simultaneously. Many students with IEPs have 504 plans so accommodations can follow beyond graduation. Even those with just 504 plans might have these primarily for use after high school.
Statistics about 504 plans are not as readily available as statistics about IEPs. Anecdotal information coming from high schools suggests a trend of parents seeking 504 plans just prior to graduation. This would appear to be more about improving chances for success in college than for increasing access in high school. With so much on the line in college in terms of cost, this is understandable and probably wise. What looks somewhat suspicious is when these students hadn’t been experiencing difficulty with access. Parents present a physician or psychiatrist’s diagnosis and insist that services are needed suddenly—possibly with just a year or less of high school remaining. This doesn’t mean needs aren’t legitimate and shouldn’t be addressed per planning for college, but one has to wonder about the possibility of a few questionably necessary plans sneaking through.
Although impossible to prove, other aspects of the reported trend make intentions appear suspicious. Some parents are seeking 504 plans for high-achieving students whose progress suddenly slows. A plan might be legitimately necessary, as progress might slow because of encroaching anxiety or depression that has been latent, but has emerged as stakes increase in high school. Another obvious possibility is progress might slow when students reach work that is sufficiently challenging or even above their capabilities. Rather than accept this, some parents might prefer to seek a diagnosis and petition for the support of a 504 plan. Yes, a condition might be in place at the same time, which should be addressed via support. An ethical question arises here though: should every student who experiences academic difficulty be evaluated for a mental health condition? The various factors here would need their own article.
Still other curious uses of 504 plans are reported. Anecdotes from the frontlines of the opt-out movement describe parents lobbying for 504 plans with hopes of getting testing accommodations on state assessments. Some parents have claimed the tests themselves create anxiety and 504 plans are needed to address this. The original intent of Section 504 wasn’t to remedy such specific and limited instances. Nonetheless, the ongoing controversy over testing is connected with reports of 504 plans being sought more as a test fix than as a global support.
As mentioned, the expansion of Section 504 to include various mental health conditions is relatively recent. A 2009 revision brought the law into closer alignment with the ADA. The inclusion of mental health conditions allows parents to pursue 504 plans for post-secondary leverage and for clemency on tests. Again, statistics are sparse and conflicting, but the expanded coverage combined with the pressures associated with standardized testing would make an increase in 504 plans likely. Other factors could contribute to an increase. School districts looking to limit the number of students receiving special education services might see a corresponding increase in 504 plans (this might be a way for schools to avoid over-identification of students per IDEA Indicators). A naturally occurring increase in the number of school-aged children diagnosed with mental health conditions should be reflected in an increase in 504 plans. Considering all of this, an increase shouldn’t be surprising.
The implications of an increase are multifaceted. Section 504 is not a funded mandate like the IDEA. States and school districts receive additional funding per the number students who receive special education services. Comparable funding doesn’t exist for students with 504 plans, but the accommodations required could be every bit as expensive as special education services, leaving gaps in how to provide these. Section 504 might not be funded, but parents can still sue a school district if a 504 plan isn’t properly implemented. Special education teachers don’t oversee 504 plans, so general education teachers must follow the plans without their assistance. Getting general education teachers to follow IEPs is difficult enough in some schools. Expecting them to follow somewhat more arcane plans could be perilous. A surge of 504 plans could find some schools wholly unprepared to deal with them. This is a fault of schools, but a troubling reality nonetheless.
At the collegiate level, an increase in 504 plans could create policy changes. Generally, an office of disability reviews a student’s condition and determines what accommodations will be needed, sometimes based on a 504 plan. Should these plans demand more complicated accommodations, schools might need to adjust policies to avoid discrimination suits (actually, schools are already taking a beating in this area). Universities could have to adjust course offerings and grading procedures for some students as more complex needs are seen on campuses. Failure to comply could lead to students hitting colleges with suits similar to those seen in special education. Now, this could be seen as progress, as college becomes more accessible to qualified students with disabilities. Another ethical debate is possible here concerning what happens if some students with disabilities complete programs and enter the workforce after experiencing less academic rigor than the peers might have experienced. Once again, this would be a fault of the schools, not the law. A more likely negative fallout could involve colleges becoming as reactionary and covert as K-12 schools in trying to bypass legal entanglements.
The long-term implications of the expansion Section 504 coverage remain to be seen. The expansion of eligible conditions should be a civil rights victory, but it also appears to allow 504 plans to be created for questionable purposes. Obtaining a diagnosis for a condition such as depression or anxiety isn’t difficult. Getting a 504 plan is much easier than getting an IEP. Parents are catching on to this. They’re also realizing the advantages of these plans for after high school. Much like in special education, provisions aligned with Section 504 have great potential to help people while also having great potential for abuse. What needs to be remembered is the former is much more common.