Volunteers deliver signatures challenging an Arizona law that expands a school voucher program. (Video still)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who hasn’t met a school voucher program she doesn’t like, can’t possibly like this piece of news: Public education advocates have managed to force the state of Arizona to put on hold a voucher program expansion recently signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey (R).

Expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which uses public tax dollars to pay for private and religious school tuition and other educational expenses, was challenged by a volunteer group called Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS), which filed with authorities 111,540 Arizona voter signatures on a petition challenging the law and seeking that voters decide on it in the 2018 elections.

The Arizona Republic quoted Elections Director Eric Spencer as telling the group after it delivered the signatures: “For now, the law is stayed.”

The group needs 75,000 valid signatures to force the issue onto the ballot, and authorities will attempt to verify every one of them over the next few weeks. But even before the signatures were filed, supporters of the law, including the American Federation for Children, which was founded years ago by DeVos, were planning to fight the challenge. This comes from the Blog for Arizona:

Now the big guns of the right-wing are rolling out their attacks to try to prevent the referendum from qualifying for the ballot. … Republican elections attorney Timothy La Sota, who represents the Arizona Republican Party, sent a letter to the secretary of state requesting that it invalidate all signatures collected by three of the campaign’s paid petition gatherers on the grounds that they registered incorrectly with the state.

Elections Director Eric Spencer said La Sota alleged that one of the three had impermissibly listed a post office box as his home address, while the other had information missing from the street addresses they used in their registration. Spencer said he didn’t know how many signatures might be affected.

In response, [SOS spokeswoman] Dawn Penich-Thacker accused ESA supporters of trying to stifle democracy.

“Instead of listening to their constituents, they are plotting ways to squash us,” she said. “Let me be clear: Every lawsuit to throw out a voter signature is an attempt to silence us. Every challenge to a retiree who spent this summer getting signatures is an affront to our democracy in Arizona. Every trick they pull out of their deep pockets is putting their political ambitions ahead of the future of Arizona.”

Challenging a voucher program expansion in Arizona is not an insignificant accomplishment, given that Arizona is in the forefront of the school choice movement. It is ranked No. 1 on a report card of states recently issued by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful group of conservative lawmakers and lobbyists. Arizona actually had low scores on the National Assessment of Educational Program and a low high school graduation rate, but all that really mattered in the rating was school choice programs, and in that regard Arizona is an ALEC winner.

Republican lawmakers in Arizona have been supporters of vouchers and other forms of school choice for years, with the initial program beginning in 2011 by offering publicly funded “scholarships” to students with disabilities to attend private and religious schools. It was then expanded to include students from low-income families. The latest expansion, which Ducey signed this past April, allows all students in the state to apply for the program but will limit the number that can be eligible, with no more than approximately 30,000 being allowed by 2022.

The program doesn’t do exactly what it says it does, the Republic found in an investigation:

Republic analysis found that counter to the program’s characterization as a benefit to lower-income students in poor-performing schools, students abandoning higher-performing districts in more-affluent areas are largely using the program.

Democrats and moderate Republicans in the state have opposed voucher expansion, saying that supporters are trying to privatize public education and that children in traditional public school systems wind up getting hurt.

DeVos, a billionaire, has for decades promoted the spread of vouchers, calling traditional public education “a dead end” and supporting efforts in states around the country to expand them as well as charter schools and programs similar to vouchers that use public money for private schooling.