Students at any academic level in America today may need extra support to accommodate learning differences and/or disabilities. They may be eligible for special education services under federal law via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and/or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. If eligible via IDEA, a student will have an individualized education plan (IEP), while a student who is eligible via the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 will have a 504 plan (named for Section 504 of the Act wherein special education services are outlined). Both IEPs and 504 plans are formal documents that provide education-related information and outline varying accommodations and/or modifications for students with special needs, but they have similarities and differences. That said, though each plan is covered differently by federal law and is applied in different ways, the overarching goal of both of these special education plans is to help students thrive within a school environment. 



Special education in the United States is governed by IDEA. IDEA, formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was enacted in 1975 to guarantee a free and appropriate public school education for all eligible students who are three to 21 years of age. In 2019–20, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of people who received special education services under IDEA was 7.3 million–about 14% of all public school students. Among students receiving special education services, the most common category of disability (33%) was specific learning disabilities. IDEA-eligible students receive IEPs.


An IEP is an in-depth, comprehensive record that outlines a student’s educational needs and services. It includes information about any medical diagnoses or other scientific determinations that point to specific needs. Further, it lists recommended services relative to the student’s unique qualifying factors. It is based on a complete evaluation of the student and is a legally binding document that can be applied for any and all students in need of special education services.



The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs conducted by federal agencies and those receiving federal financial assistance. Section 504 of the Act protects the rights of students with disabilities. The US Department of Education (DoE) notes that it “enforces Section 504 in programs and activities that receive [federal] financial assistance…. Recipients of this assistance include public school districts, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies.” Students covered by Section 504 of the Act receive 504 plans.


A 504 plan deals specifically with how learning will progress for students who are able to participate within general education classrooms, but still need additional support. 504 plans can be used to provide special education services to students who are not eligible for those services via IDEA. They are applied as needed (though they can be reviewed and renewed annually, just like IEPs). Though everything included in a 504 plan also can be outlined in an IEP, the opposite is not possible; IEPs can require services and supports that a 504 plan cannot.


There is an interrelationship between IDEA with IEPs and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 with 504 plans. If your student is eligible for special education services, understanding the similarities and differences between IEPs and 504 plans is very important. Knowing how both can help your students get formal help can provide the peace of mind you need.

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