“We value faith and learning,” Mr. Meester said. “You will never hear a teacher say, ‘I don’t care if you forget everything, as long as God loves you.’”
Ms. DeVos described the role of religion in her life: “My faith motivates me to really try to work on behalf of and advocate for those who are least able to advocate for themselves.”
Her children were mostly educated in private Christian schools because of their proximity to home and the DeVoses’ preference for faith-based learning. The children attended Ada Christian Schools for primary school, which Ms. DeVos praised for its creativity and teachers.
She decided to home-school her elder daughter in sixth through eighth grades because, Ms. Devos said, the daughter had grown increasingly bored in school and the girls in her class were growing increasingly “catty.”
All four of Ms. DeVos’s children graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School, in the largest western Michigan city, about 45 minutes from Holland. Ms. DeVos said she had preferred Grand Rapids’s Christian school over others because its philosophy was to “engage with the world, not hide from the world.”
The DeVoses also preferred private schools because, she said, they were independent and could be more flexible when she and her husband, Dick DeVos, wanted their children to accompany them on business travel.
“If you ask any of my kids today what their most important experience was in their education, they would say it was the travel and the ability to see and be in other cultures,” she said.
Ms. DeVos also said she had chosen Grand Rapids Christian because it was more diverse than her neighborhood school in the wealthy suburb of Ada. Today, Grand Rapids Christian’s enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade is more than 25 percent minority, 30 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, and 45 percent receive financial aid.
Tom DeJonge, superintendent of Grand Rapids Christian Schools and a longtime friend of the DeVos family, said he was proud that the school drew students who couldn’t cover full tuition, as the DeVoses did (they paid about $10,000 a year per child), and who took public transit to school.
On a recent visit, the school looked like a relaxed comprehensive public high school: Students lounged in the hallway eating ice cream cones or bantered with their chemistry teacher. The school embraces both secular and nonsecular curriculums. Students learn creationism and evolution and study other religious influences like Hinduism.
“It’s impossible to separate God and Scripture from any other aspect of life,” but other influences do intrude, Mr. DeJonge said. “We do not put our heads in the sand, and neither does Betsy.”
Larry Borst, who taught all of the DeVos children, recalled their asking probing questions about religion. They did not expect to be treated any differently just because their last name adorned buildings across town.
“Sure, they went on better vacations, but they’re just dirt-floor people,” Mr. Borst said.
Ms. DeVos is still involved in the school. She has mentored one Grand Rapids Christian student, whom she met while a mentor in the public school system, for more than a decade. And the school’s DeVos Center for Arts and Worship attests to the hundreds of thousands of dollars the family has donated.
That involvement has not won over all her critics.
“The fact that she’s mentored a child or two doesn’t change the fact that she is Public Enemy No. 1 for public schools,” said Brandon Dillon, who represented Grand Rapids in the State House for four years and is chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.
John Booy has no time for such “hysterics,” which he said were fueled by teachers’ unions, including the one he belonged to for 27 years as a Grand Rapids Public Schools teacher. Mr. Booy met Ms. DeVos more than 30 years ago, shortly after she visited the school he founded, called the Potter’s House. She had missed a fund-raising event, then called him to apologize and ask if she could visit.
The Potter’s House is one of the few schools that Ms. DeVos has referred to by name in her campaign for school choice, saying the school represented the kinds of families who used choice to obtain a better education for their children. The DeVoses have been “partners” at the school for decades, underwriting individual students’ $5,000 tuition, and even entire classes for $25,000.
The school allows families to pay what they can afford, most no more than 10 percent of their net income.
Mr. Booy, a self-described “radical idealist,” started the “Christ-centered urban school” 36 years ago. He had thought he could change the world after college by moving to a low-income neighborhood and becoming a public school teacher. But at gatherings he hosted at his home, he saw public school students falling through the cracks.