The principle guiding education in the Unites States is that your child should be with kids in the general classroom setting the the maximum extent appropriate. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that your child's educational experience will be in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Your student should only be removed from the general education class when his/her disability is so severe that supplementary aids and services can't provide him/her with an appropriate education. In a nutshell, federal law requires that students receiving special education services be taught with their neurotypical peers as much as possible.
The challenge is that LRE is not specified, but rather, open to interpretation. The LRE for your student could be the general education classroom with support (tutor/aide), partial mainstream/inclusion classroom (part of day in general ed classroom, part of day in special education classroom ), special education class (specialized instruction for students with similar needs), or a specialized program outside of your school district (private schools, residential/hospital programs). Assistive technology, accommodations, modifications and paraprofessionals are strategies schools employ to help students receiving special education succeed in general education settings. Currently, two-thirds of students with learning disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their school day in the general education classrooms.
While an IEP is plan for a student's special education experience at school , a 504 is seen as a plan for how your student will have access to learning at school. Both plans are provided at no cost to parents. While an IEP provides individualized special education and related services to meet the specific needs of a student, a 504 provides services and changes to the learning environment to meet the needs of the student as adequately as the other students.
Eligibility for the two options is very different. To get an IEP, a child must (1) have one or more of the thirteen specific disabilities listed in IDEA and (2) the disability must affect the child's educational performance and/or ability to learn from the general education curriculum. To get a 504 a child must (1) have any disability (a broader definition/list than that of the IEP) and (2) the disability must interfere with the child's ability to learn in a general education classroom.
What is in each plan differs as well. An IEP sets the learning objectives for the student and describes the services the school will give the student. The IEP must contain the child's present level of academic and functional performance, the annual educational goals for the child and how the school will track the student's progress, the services the student will receive, the timing related to the services, any accommodations, modification, how the child will participate in standardized tests and how the child will be included in general education classes and activities. The 504 plan, on the other hand, lists specific accommodations, supports or services for the student, the names of personnel who will provide each service, and the name of the personnel responsible for ensuring the implementation of the plan.
Making this distinction is very important, and I can help. Beside my passion for and experience with students with disabilities, I received by law degree from the University of Iowa in 1993. I practiced law for several years prior to home educating my children. I understand the legalities of these options, and would love the opportunity to walk with you in ensuring your child receives what he needs to thrive in the classroom.