Hartley began with 10 years of service on the board of the Tupelo Public School District from 1984 to 1994, and he served a three-year partial term and a full nine-year term on the state board. Between the Tupelo board and the state board, he served on the state board overseeing vocational education.
A simply stated belief is the foundation of Hartley's passion.
"All children are important," says Hartley, a father of five and many times grandfather. "In our state, about 90 percent of the children attend public schools."
Hartley, who turns 81 in August, grew up in a big family in Lumberton. His father, Hub Hartley, "owned the service station in the middle of town. My mother epitomized the image of the Women's Society of Christian Service (she was a strong Methodist), and her rule was never to say anything bad about anybody," Hartley recalled.
His father had already set a standard of service that remains with Hartley.
"Daddy was wounded 13 times in World War I, and he was even discussed as a candidate for the Medal of Honor," Hartley recalled.
After joining the army as a volunteer in 1949 and making lieutenant, attending Pearl River Junior College and the University of Southern Mississippi led to a degree, and his first job was as a sales and marketing field representative in Tupelo for Standard Oil Company.
Later he entered a long run as an independent entrepreneur and investor.
It was during work on Tupelo's discussion of a new city charter that the late BancorpSouth Chairman and CEO J.C. Whitehead advised Hartley to accept an offered appointment to the Tupelo School Board.
Hartley said the decision changed his life.
"It's about children and learning, not who gets the credit."
Hartley won't veer from that position. Working for ego satisfaction, he said, does not serve the interests of children or public education.
Doyce Deas, a colleague of Hartley's for seven years on the Tupelo board, said they did not always agree, but she added, "Claude has a strong grasp of what it will take to get education back on track ... I agree with him that it's got to be radical. All children need to be served ..."
Three core beliefs comprise Hartley's main policy positions: * "We don't need 152 school districts in Mississippi. That structure is inefficient. We need, in my opinion, no more than 20 or 25. I think Gov. Barbour missed a golden opportunity ... by not using his special commission to push harder for that kind of reform."
* "We need to look at year-round schooling, something like many European nations, where you go for nine weeks and take two off, and then return, repeating the cycle ... Poverty students, who are at risk of underachievement, lose retention with a long summer break ...."
* "Mississippi must have statewide pre-kindegarten for 4-year-olds. I think we can afford to do that if we make grades 10 and 11 more rigorous and drop the 12th grade requirement. Empower the kids in pre-K so that they will not have an academic achievement gap at the beginning."
Itawamba Community College President David Cole said Hartley "was a very positive thinker, pushing for more rigor. He enjoyed pushing the envelope." Cole added, "And he is always a progressive."
Hartley and his wife, Sarah Thompson Hartley, live in a Tupelo neighborhood and remain active in community life.