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Students With '504 Plans' More Likely to Be White, Enrolled in Non-Title I Schools

Students receiving accommodations under Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act—a law that predates the Individuals with Disabilities Act and creates a more expansive definition of disability than the IDEA—are more likely to be white, male, and enrolled in a school that is not eligible for Title I funds, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data published in the Aug. 7 edition of the Journal of Disability Policy Studies. 

(Note: The abstract of the study, linked above, gives an incorrect summary of the racial breakdown of "504 plan" students. The lead author of the study said in an interview that the abstract will be corrected.)

Students covered under Section 504 could have a variety of disabling conditions, such as cancer, epilepsy, diabetes or mobility impairments. The overall percentage of students who are given accommodations under Section 504 is small, however: about 1 percent of all students, according to the 2009-10 Civil Rights Data Collection. This compares to about 12 percent of all students who are covered under the IDEA.

Here's a quick review of the differences and similarities between Section 504 and IDEA.

Section 504 applies to children who have a physical or mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities; for students, one major life activity is learning.

However, Section 504 and IDEA define "disability" differently. IDEA has 13 disability categories, while Section 504 has a three-part definition that is broader than IDEA. All students covered by IDEA are also covered by Section 504, but there's also a smaller group of Section 504 students who are not a part of IDEA‐these students may have chronic medical conditions or be under a doctor's care for psychological conditions.

Adding to the complexity is that the IDEA does include a catch-all category called "other health impairments." Deciding what law covers a student can be a judgment call, based on the severity of the impairment and the level of accommodations that student needs.

Another difference between the two laws: The federal government provides some money to school districts to educate children in special education, along with a specific legal framework for doing so. Accommodations for Section 504 students are a mandate, but with no specific federal funding.

Perry A. Zirkel, a lead author on this paper and a professor of special education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., also attempted to quantify the number of 504-only students by sending surveys to districts. The percentage of students with 504-only plans, about 1 percent, was about the same based on that survey information, which was collected in 2005.

However, the civil rights data collection allowed demographic analysis. Among the findings: 

  • White students are more than twice as likely (1.26 percent) to have a 504 plan compared to their Black (0.57 percent) or Hispanic (0.5 percent) classmates. 
  • Male students were almost twice as likely to have a 504-only plan (1.27 percent) compared to female students (0.76 percent). 
  • A little less than 1 percent of children in Title I schools, or 0.84 percent, had 504-plans only. That compares to 1.23 percent of students in schools that do not receive Title I funds. 

The paper says that these findings open opportunities for more detailed questions. For example, in 2008, Congress made some changes in the law that would have the effect of making it easier for students to be covered under Section 504. But there does not appear to have been any noticeable increase in the number of children with that label, as one might expect, the paper notes. 

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