In 1999, I began my teaching career at a high school in a well-off district where most of the students drove cars much nicer than mine. In many ways, it was a dream job: The school was among the most highly ranked in the country, in an upscale town in the New York City metropolitan area, and the pay was excellent. But soon I started feeling that something was off. I wanted out, as soon as possible, and left after just a year. It wasn’t long before I learned my discomfort was justified.
That’s because the school was Roslyn High School on Long Island. If that name sounds familiar at all, it’s probably not because of its national ranking, but because, just a couple of years after my departure, a scandal started coming to light, ultimately revealing that over the course of a decade, administrators stole and misdirected over $11 million from the district. Now that story, the biggest school embezzlement case in US history, is retold in the new movie Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone, the corrupt superintendent, and Allison Janney as his partner in crime and assistant superintendent, Pam Gluckin. It premieres on HBO on April 25.
The crimes of Bad Education are unraveled through an investigation by student reporter Rachel Bhargava, and although the character and her scoop are based only loosely on real life, it calls to mind great journalism movies, like a student version of Spotlight. It’s also a delicious true-crime story about a brazen con man who breaches trust, like a smaller-time Bernie Madoff. And it’s a morality tale about the fine and blurry lines between ambition and greed; in a lesser performance, Tassone, a former English teacher turned entitled grifter, could have seemed merely pathetic or simply evil, but Jackman makes him a complex antihero with a Shakespearean tragic flaw.
The film—written by Mike Makowsky, who himself grew up in Roslyn and attended its schools—wants us to see that the school board and even the families of Roslyn were not innocently blindsided, as portrayed in local news media at the time, but effectively complicit, setting the stage for Tassone and Gluckin. In Makowsky’s telling, the Roslyn scandal wasn’t a simple case of opportunism, greed, or even, as suggested in the movie, sociopathy. The tone of venality was set by the community, in the form of hunger for the higher property values and college pedigrees conferred by its prestigious schools. The context for the crimes is a wealthy, self-impressed school board whose members are initially okay with hushing up grand larceny to protect their own interests.
The movie evokes another case in the headlines involving ethically compromised parents: the college admissions scandal that led to criminal charges for celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Roslyn’s parents aren’t glamorous—Bad Education casts them in a harsh light with strong Long Island accents, overprocessed hair, and nouveau-riche taste—nor do they sink to tactics like padding their children’s resumes with fake extracurriculars or cheating on the SAT’s on their behalf. But it’s not hard to see how you get from here to there.
Crucially, at the basis of both scandals lies the belief that a good education is the ticket to success. But what does it mean to be a “good” school, or a “good” educator, or a “good” student? In movie Roslyn, good equals prestige, in the form of national rankings, Ivy League acceptance rates, pedigreed teachers, and fancy bells and whistles. Those include the useless capital project that ultimately leads Rachel, the budding student journalist, to the thieving Tassone and Gluckin.
That their malfeasance is exposed by an ambitious student is played for light irony—in an early scene, Tassone encourages her to ask hard questions and do real reporting. For a schools superintendent who prioritizes shallow initiatives designed to keep parents happy when he isn’t off spending the money he got raiding the school budget, it ends up being quite an effective lesson. His undoing is his own doing.
While many details and players from the case have been fictionalized for the screen, I can attest that it all rings true. One minor character, a pushy mother who blindly believes her underachieving son is gifted and deserves to have rules bent for him to succeed, reminds me of people I met in real-life Roslyn, where I played out variations on this scene over and over. Parents routinely pressured teachers to let students retake tests, do extra credit, and revise essays. Some even looked the other way when their children cheated. (One father, after I’d caught his son plagiarizing, shrugged off the charges, pointing out that “the president doesn’t write his own speeches.” He could have been a bit character in the movie.) Ultimately, a struggle over what I perceived as institutionalized grade inflation is what finally pushed me to take another job.
Though I interacted only a few times with Tassone himself, and never, to my memory, with Gluckin, their movie versions felt eerily spot on. Though he’s better looking and less creepy than the real Tassone, Jackman pretty much nails him. Watching him drive up to the school in his Mercedes in the movie took me right back to the same scene 20 years ago. Even the blocky, harshly lit office and school buildings look just how they do in my memory. And as in the film, some students relished a spot on the staff of the Hilltop Beacon newspaper mostly because it looked good on college applications.
But the characters in Bad Education are so expertly drawn, the thorny issues so well teased out, and the path to discovery so rewarding, that a personal connection is hardly needed to appreciate it. For me, it adds an extra layer, but there are plenty of depths to plumb without it. Still, if, as you watch—and you should, as the film is engrossing and thought-provoking—you find yourself questioning whether these people were really anything like this in real life, I can tell you the answer is yes, yes, they were.
Correction: This post was updated to reflect the fact that while Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were both indicted in the college admissions scandal, Loughlin’s case is still pending.