K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education


LEARN NC is no longer supported by the UNC School of Education and has been permanently archived. On February 1st, 2018, you will only be able to access these resources through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. We recommend that you print or download resources you may need before February 1st, 2018, after which, you will have to follow these instructions in order to access those resources.

Learn more

Related pages

  • Changing the focus from label to need: Labeling a student's disability is an important step in procuring special education services for that student. But is there a downside to labeling students? This article looks at four commonly held — but ultimately misleading — beliefs about labels in special education, and advocates for focusing on needs rather than labels.
  • Two paths to knowledge: For students who who always finish their class work early or want more information than you have time to give, try curriculum compacting.
  • Response to Intervention (RTI): Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tiered model designed to combine assessment and intervention...

Related topics


The text of this page is copyright ©2002. See terms of use. Images and other media may be licensed separately; see captions for more information and read the fine print.

Many teachers and parents find it difficult to navigate the maze of legal protections for students with disabilities. This article is meant to provide a brief overview of two major laws that protect students with disabilities in schools. In addition to explanations and comparisons, Web resources are listed in a sidebar to the article.

Public Law 94-142, passed in 1975, guaranteed a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities outlined in the law and identified in the schools. This law has since been reauthorized and is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law was heralded by parents and teachers alike as a vehicle to protect students with disabilities who had been treated poorly by many schools. The major provisions of IDEA are explained below. IDEA outlines the many steps necessary to identify a student with a disability and then to provide services for that student. Details about the requirements and procedural safeguards for each step are available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

Unlike IDEA, Section 504 has just recently gained much attention and, because of its more broad definitions and rights, has created much confusion among teachers. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed into law in 1973. The purpose of the law is to protect individuals who are otherwise qualified from discrimination because of physical or mental impairments that substantially limit a person’s major life activities. Learning is considered a major life activity for school-age children. The main point for schools is that they must guarantee an equal opportunity to benefit from education and equivalent services or programs for students with physical or mental impairments, students regarded as having a physical or mental impairment, and students with a record of physical or mental impairments (Yell, 1998). Section 504 does not spell out the same rigid requirements for identification and provision of services as IDEA, so each school district must have a plan. Each school or district must have a 504 coordinator who can provide more information.

All students protected by IDEA are also protected by Section 504. However, not all students protected by Section 504 are protected by IDEA. The similarities and differences in the laws are shown below. Both laws provide substantial protection for students with disabilities and should be invoked to help them get the best education possible. Special education and 504 coordinators can provide more specific information about how IDEA and Section 504 affect teaching. In addition, the Web sites listed in the sidebar are excellent resources.

Major Provisions of IDEA

Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
Before the law was passed, some individuals with disabilities were not allowed to attend school because the schools did not have "appropriate services" for them. The law made it mandatory that the public schools provide a free and appropriate education. The term "free" has been fairly easy to interpret; however, there has been a lot of disagreement as to the definition of the term "appropriate."
Nondiscriminatory Evaluation
Testing associated with the identification process and measuring progress of the student cannot be discriminatory in any way.
Individual Education Program (IEP)
An IEP is required for all students identified as having a disability. It includes a number of components but is based upon the unique needs of the individual student.
Least Restrictive Environment
The intent of the Least Restrictive Environment component of the law is to make sure that the student is not inappropriately separated or segregated from his or her peers. If the student can receive appropriate services within the regular class, or classes where the student would be if he or she were not identified as having a disability, then the instructional and educational services should be provided in that environment. However, if the student cannot effectively receive appropriate services within the regular classroom (such as one-to-one individualized instruction in a large class with only one teacher), then the least restrictive environment might be a resource room for part of the day.
Due Process
If parents disagree with a decision made by schools — such as a specific detail in the IEP — they are entitled to due process. Due Process refers to a series of mandatory steps and procedures to assure that the parents’ concerns are reviewed and seriously considered.
Parental Participation
The law says that parents have the right to be informed of the procedures, to be involved in the decision-making process, and to consent to evaluation and placements recommended by the schools.

Comparison of IDEA and Section 504




Purpose of law

  • Provides federal funding to states to assist in education of students with disabilities
  • Substantive requirements attached to funding
  • Civil rights law
  • Protects persons with disabilities from discrimination in programs or services that receive federal financial assistance
  • Requires reasonable accommodations to ensure nondiscrimination

Who is protected?

  • Categorical approach
  • Thirteen disability categories
  • Disability must adversely impact educational performance
  • Functional approach
  • Students (a) having a mental or physical impairment that affects a major life activity, (b) with a record of such an impairment, or (c) who are regarded as having such an impairment


  • Special education and related services that are provided at public expense, meet state requirements, and are provided in conformity with the IEP
  • Substantive standard is educational benefit
  • General or special education and related aids and services
  • Requires a written education plan
  • Substantive standard is equivalency


  • Student must be educated with peers without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate
  • Removal from integrated settings only when supplementary aids and services are not successful
  • Districts must have a continuum of placements available
  • School must ensure that the students are educated with their peers without disabilities

Evaluation and Placement

  • Protection in evaluation procedures
  • Requires consent prior to initial evaluation and placement
  • Evaluation and placement decisions have to be made by a multidisciplinary team
  • Requires evaluation of progress toward IEP goals annually and reevaluation at least every 3 years
  • Does not require consent; requires notice only
  • Requires periodic reevaluation
  • Reevaluation is required before a significant change in placement

Procedural safeguards

  • Comprehensive and detailed notice requirements
  • Provides for independent evaluations
  • No grievance procedure
  • Impartial due process hearing
  • General notice requirements
  • Grievance procedure
  • Impartial due process hearing


  • Provides for federal funding to assist in the education of students with disabilities
  • No federal funding


  • US Office of Special Education Programs (can cut off IDEA funds)
  • Compliance monitoring by state educational agency
  • Complaint may be filed with Office of Civil Rights (can cut off all federal funding)
  • Complaints can be filed with state’s Department of Education

Adapted from Yell, M.L. (1998). The Law and Special Education. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.