COLUMBIA — School choice will get its first major vetting in South Carolina this year when a Senate panel meets today to hear the merits and the demerits of proposals to offer more learning options within public schools and to provide tax credits and scholarships for private school tuition.

More than 40 people are signed up to speak during the scheduled two-hour meeting on Statehouse grounds.

On Wednesday the two sides on the polarizing issue staked out their positions and warmed up their arguments.

"Here we go again," Debbie Elmore, South Carolina School Boards Association director of communications, said.

She called the latest bill on school choice, a six-year-old movement to help parents pay private school tuition with public money, another scheme that is nothing more than a "private school bailout bill."

But something is different this go-around. Sen. Robert Ford, a black Charleston Democrat, is leading the effort, which previously has been dismissed by some as an effort by wealthy whites to get free tuition for their kids to elite private schools.

Ford's position has rankled public school advocates and black leaders in the Charleston community. The senator said he reversed his previous stance on the matter after learning about the ways school choice has worked well in other states.

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.

Dot Scott and the Rev. Joe Darby, president and vice president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that Ford is not considering all the facts, especially the damage they believe the tax credits will cause already struggling public schools.

Scott and Darby also question the timing of Ford's change of heart, within months of Ford's announcement that he will run for governor in 2010. School choice advocates have historically contributed a significant amount of money to candidates who support the cause.

Ford's personal credibility is on the line, Scott said.

She said she is concerned that private schools are not obligated to accept all children, and she also wonders if the same care would be available in private schools for children who depend on their school for free breakfast and transportation.

Diversity, in race and performance, is better for students, and filtering out students with parents who have the means and gumption to pursue the tuition credits will leave an "education ghetto" in the public schools, Darby said.

What's more, he added, the difference between tuition and the tax credits or scholarships does not add up.

It is time in South Carolina to fix the public schools, Darby said.

Darby and Scott want Ford to hold a meeting in his district to allow his constituents to tell him what they think about his legislation. They don't think Ford has support in his district.

"It's more than an affront to the people," Scott said. "Obviously, he is not representing the will of his people."

Ford said a poll conducted earlier this month that surveyed 1,000 black voters statewide shows broad support for his legislation.

The public has spoken, Ford said, and the poll's findings don't support the claims made by Scott and Darby.

"Why would I listen to them anymore? They don't represent anybody, and the poll proves it," Ford said.

Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, who opposes tax credits or vouchers for private school tuition, is expected to speak today about the second bill on the agenda.

That bill would require school districts to offer more instructional options to parents.

The Senate subcommittee members are not expected to take action on the bills today, just receive the testimony.

Given the little time left before the Legislature's summer adjournment in May or June, it is unlikely either of these bills will become law this year.

POLL FINDS SUPPORT FOR CHOICE

Pulse Opinion Research, a public opinion research group that follows Rasmussen Reports standards, polled 1,000 black voters across the state earlier this month to see where they stand on using tax credits toward private school tuition, and related questions. The poll was paid for by the Parents in Charge Foundation, an organization that advocates for school choice by helping parents pay for private school tuition, including tapping tax dollars to do so. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Here are highlights:

• Should parents, grandparents or custodial relatives be allowed to receive state scholarships for their children to go to private schools if they feel the public schools are not meeting their children's needs? Yes, 43 percent; no, 40 percent; not sure, 17 percent.

• Will giving parents tax credits and scholarships to allow them to choose the best public school or a private school improve the graduation rate in South Carolina? Yes, 53 percent; no, 28 percent; not sure, 19 percent.

• Do you agree or disagree with this statement, "Trapping poor black students in failing public schools is the largest civil rights issue facing our state today?" Agree, 53 percent; disagree, 31 percent; not sure, 15 percent.

• Sen. Robert Ford is an African-American Democrat state senator who is proposing giving parents tax credits and scholarships to choose the best school for their children. Is Sen. Ford looking out for poor kids by getting them out of failing schools and into a better learning environment? Yes, 61 percent; no, 21 percent; not sure, 18 percent.

• Are public schools becoming more segregated, less segregated or has there been no change? More segregated, 42 percent; less segregated, 22 percent; no change, 26 percent; not sure, 9 percent.