504 plan process lacks equity

PAUSD should allocate more resources to special education in order to streamline steps to obtain, ensure accessibility to learning accommodations


The Editors in Chief

In order to promote inclusivity and ensure fair learning opportunities and outcomes in the classroom, The Campanile urges administrators to allocate more resources to the special education department to reinforce eligibility requirements, streamline the process of obtaining a 504 and better support students who are legitimately eligible for a 504 plan.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, introduced in 1973, guarantees rights to people with disabilities and also offers learning plans to students with disabilities in public education to ensure they receive proper accommodations.

While Section 504 was introduced to bring down barriers in education, a lack of overall accessibility to 504 plans contributes to wide racial disparities in student participation in the program, continuing to perpetuate inequitable conditions at school. 

According to The Advocacy Institute, students who have learning plans under Section 504 are overwhelmingly white. Paly is no exception. Of the 315 students with 504 accommodations, 58% are white, 18% are Asian, 12% are Hispanic or Latino and 1.5% are Black. Moreover, a larger percentage of white students have 504 plans than any other racial group: 26% of white students at Paly have 504 plans compared to 8.2% of Asian people.

This disparity in 504 accommodations may stem from multiple factors, but racial biases and cultural differences in students of color can make them less likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities. A primary way students begin the testing process is when teachers identify them as potential candidates to receive 504 accommodations. However, due to implicit biases, students from some racial backgrounds may be underidentified by their teachers, inherently placing them in more constrained educational environments than their peers. Parents from different backgrounds may also be averse to or unfamiliar with the process of having their children diagnosed with learning disabilities, preventing these underrepresented students from getting a potential diagnosis. 

But even after students have been given the green light by their teachers or parents to begin testing, the process can be a financial burden for students from low-income backgrounds, giving them even fewer opportunities to be diagnosed with learning disabilities.

In order to be eligible for 504 evaluation, students often need diagnoses from a physician. Such psychological evaluations can cost upwards of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, and students at Paly have said the process is expensive. 

In addition, for parents who are unfamiliar with the school system, the idea of a 504 plan and the months-long process to obtain it may seem daunting and not worth the effort. 

A student’s financial situation, cultural background and racial identity should never be a barrier to their education, and as a solution to increase the accessibility of 504 plans, The Campanile thinks the district should offer to cover the cost for any student who wants to be tested learning disabilities. This would serve as a first step toward standardizing the process of obtaining 504 plans and eliminate the opportunity for students to obtain diagnoses through private practitioners which often results in overdiagnosis and benefits those of privilege. 

Similarly to how eyesight and hearing testing is conducted in PAUSD elementary schools to detect potential learning disruptions from an early age, ADHD tests or other 504 eligibility tests could be offered by school psychologists for students who request it.

The Campanile also recognizes that increasing student accessibility to 504 plans poses the risk of misuse. 504 plan rates are often disproportionately high in high-income areas, and while nationally, around 2.3% of students have 504 plans, in Palo Alto, 16% of students have them. In some high-income areas, over 30% of students have 504 plans — telltale signs of a broken and exploitable system. 

Regardless of this potential for abuse, The Campanile thinks in order to increase the credibility of 504 accommodations, offering free educational evaluations through the school district would help prevent students from circumventing standardized systems and allow access to opportunities for marginalized communities.