COLUMBIA — Senators heard today from parent after parent who pleaded with them to approve a plan to use tax dollars to help them pay for private school tuition, arguing that public schools had failed their children. S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex defended the public schools in his testimony and explained the strides made in finding innovative ways to education students.

The Senate K-12 Education Subcommittee took testimony from about 40 people in the hearing that stretched longer than the scheduled two hours. The panel did not take any action, but expects next week to debate the proposals. One would grant tax credits for tuition and create a scholarship fund to take donations. A second bill would require school districts to implement a variety of instructional options within the public schools.

Melissa Melvin of Tega Cay gave tear-filled testimony about how she pulled her then-seventh-grade daughter Sarah Schaeffer out of the Fort Mill School District when they suggested she give her child medication to control her behavior. Melvin said within six months of beginning homeschooling, her daughter was scoring at post-high school levels on tests in some subjects.

Melvin said that since her husband's layoff in January she is not sure how much longer she will be able to afford to homeschool Sarah.

Robin Dease of Richland County gave contrary testimony. She said her son Quaylan, now 20, has cerebral palsy and is developmentally and speech delayed, and none of the area private schools she found were able to provide the services that he needed.

"In public school we have had so many opportunities that he wouldn't have had in the private sector," Dease said. Quaylan is in a transitional program at Spring Valley High School in Columbia.

In all, about twice as many tax credit supporters spoke than opponents.

Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, is sponsoring the tax credit bill, which is the latest evolution of the school choice debate in South Carolina.

The bill would provide children with a tuition tax credit worth $2,433 for most, $4,867 for students with special needs and $3,650 for those who attend a failing school. A scholarship fund also would be created to supplement the tax credits through charitable contributions.

Public schools advocates argue that the system would still face the same expenses that it does now if a handful of students per school left and used the tax credit to attend private school, and many fear the tax credits would leave the public schools with less money to pay for those same expenses. For example, the cost to pay for teachers and utilities wouldn't change if there were three less students in a particular classroom.