The term Free Appropriate Public Education is thrown around a lot in Public Education. There are two separate laws having to do with disabilities that specifically define this term. It can be found in the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). So what exactly is the difference between the two definitions? Let’s start by looking at how each law defines FAPE.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

According to the Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities on the United Stated Department of Education website:

The Section 504 regulations require a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability who is in the school district’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. Under Section 504, FAPE consists of the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met.

According to the Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 document on the United Stated Department of Education website:

All qualified persons with disabilities within the jurisdiction of a school district are entitled to a free appropriate public education. The ED Section 504 regulation defines a person with a disability as “any person who: (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.”

For elementary and secondary education programs, a qualified person with a disability is a person with a disability who is:

of an age during which it is mandatory under state law to provide such services to persons with disabilities;
of an age during which persons without disabilities are provided such services; or
entitled to receive a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
In general, all school-age children who are individuals with disabilities as defined by Section 504 and IDEA are entitled to FAPE.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The term Free Appropriate Public Education means special education and related services that–

have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;
meet the standards of the State educational agency;
include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved; and
are provided in conformity with the individualized education program required under Section 1414(d) of this title.
The Supreme Court also weighed on the meaning of FAPE under IDEA and created the Rowley Standard:

The child must receive a basic floor of opportunity
Individually designed to provide some educational benefit
Passing grades in classes and advancement to a higher grade is one way to show progress
Differences between 504 and IDEA

Section 504 has a wider definition of FAPE. IDEA covers only special education and related services while Section 504 covers both regular or special education and related services.
Section 504 is a Civil Rights antidiscrimination law which requires disabled students to have their needs met as appropriately as non-disabled peers by comparing both groups. IDEA is a Special Education law which requires you to focus on the unique needs of the child and design an Individualized Education Program (IEP) around these individual needs.
IDEA requires the implementation of an IEP with specific requirements. Section 504 only requires a written plan.
Section 504 does not have a requirement for who must attend and participate in a 504 meeting. IDEA has requirement of who must attend and participate in an IEP meeting.
IDEA has VERY specific procedural safeguards that include expansive rights of the parents including the right to ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE), be provided Prior Written Notice (PWN), and if you disagree with the Schools offer your child’s current placement and services will be subject to a Stay Put. Section 504 does not include the concept of IEEs, PWN or Stay Put. Section 504 requires notice to the parent or guardian with respect to identification, evaluation, and/or placement but written notice is not required
IDEA has a requirement for 10 day notice before placement changes can be made. There is no such requirement in Section 504.
Both IDEA and Section 504 give the Parents the right for an impartial hearing but on very different terms. Under Section 504 the School hires and sets up the impartial hearing. Under IDEA the impartial hearing is normally set-up through the State’s Department of Education or other State Agency such as the Office of Administrative Hearings.
Section 504 is enforced by the Office of Civil Rights. IDEA is enforced by the Office of Special Education.

As you can see there are many differences between Section 504 and IDEA not only in regards to the definition of FAPE but the rights you have as a parent to enforce these laws. Make sure you understand these differences prior to agreeing to a 504 Plan versus an IEP.

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