The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that applies specifically to schools. The IDEA outlines the responsibilities that a school has toward a student with a disability, and the rights those students have to receive a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
In order to follow the IDEA, public schools must identify and evaluate children with disabilities in order to ensure that they receive an appropriate education. Once a child has been identified as having a disability, then the school must put together a team of professionals to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that sets forth the child’s educational goals, as well as what services the child will receive in order to meet those goals.
On the other hand, the Rehabilitation Act is a federal civil rights law that prevents discrimination against persons with disabilities in federal agencies, federally funded programs, and federal employment. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is the provision of the law that specifically prevents discrimination against persons with disabilities in programs funded by the federal government, which includes public schools.
Each federal agency has different regulations that outline the requirements that must be met under section 504. For instance, these regulations commonly require that programs receiving federal funding, including public schools, must provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities, and must be physically accessible for persons with disabilities. In the case of public schools, Section 504 requires that children with disabilities have equal access to education.
Unlike the IDEA, Section 504 does not require that schools develop IEPs or any sort of written plans for children with disabilities, although a school can if it so chooses. Since section 504 is a more generalized law that applies to agencies and programs other than public schools, children and parents have more procedural rights and input under the IDEA than they do under section 504. For example, a school can develop a section 504 plan for a child without inviting his or her parents to attend the development meeting. Generally, it is not necessary for a school to develop both an IEP and a section 504 plan for a child; a child’s IEP should cover every aspect of the child’s education, and the child is automatically entitled to the protections of section 504. Furthermore, a child’s rights under the IDEA end when his or her public schooling ends. Section 504 rights, however, continue to cover the child throughout his or her life.
There are also differences in how you can enforce the IDEA and Section 504. Each state operates somewhat differently, but in general terms, you must go through certain administrative procedures in order to enforce the IDEA before you can file a lawsuit. For instance, you generally must request a due process hearing, which is an informal hearing in front of an impartial hearing officer. In some states, you will also have to request that your state educational agency review your complaint. It is only after you have gone through these administrative procedures that you can file a lawsuit in state or federal court. Section 504 is different, in that you don’t have to go through any administrative procedures; you can enforce Section 504 by simply filing a private lawsuit in court.