In HBO’s Bad Education, Roslyn school district superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) patiently allows an elementary school mother to plead her case. She’s begging Tassone to admit her son into an accelerated program within the school, despite her son's inability to pronounce the words on the letter he allegedly wrote himself. (Including “accelerated.”) She feels entitled to such a meeting with Tassone, and such a spot for her kid in this gifted program: She has paid the hefty housing price to live in Long Island’s affluent Roslyn community, all to ensure her precious child receives the quality education of its nationally-ranked school district. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it really happened — no, not the college admissions scandal, which is getting its own movie and TV treatment, but the other very real school scandal that rattled America’s education system.
“In Roslyn, the Frank Tassone and Pamela Gluckin scandal was one of the biggest — if not the single biggest — news story to hit the town,” Bad Education screenwriter Mike Makowsky tells Refinery29 over the phone. “It completely changed the way my town processed its education system, which it had been really proud of up until that point.”
When we first meet Tassone, he is credited with shepherding Roslyn to the number four spot of the national rankings, and he seemingly wants the best for all his students. He pens recommendation letters for seniors. He studies the names of the incoming students in his spare time. He reads to the kindergarten classes. The fact that Tassone is also extorting money from the very district where he works, funding his plastic surgery operations and double life in Las Vegas with a young boyfriend, does not compute with the image of a man who champions his students. For the parents who look towards Tassone as a person helping secure their child’s successful future, it’s unfathomable.
Makowsky knows about the shock first hand: The Long Island native was a Roslyn student when Tassone was arrested for stealing millions from the affluent district alongside Gluckin (played by a dryly hilarious Allison Janney), his administrator also caught up in the larceny scam. Tassone was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, while Gluckin received three to nine years behind bars. Tassone reportedly still receives his six-figure pension.
In the movie, Jackman and Janney’s characters attempt to live the same lavish lifestyle that the many of the families in their school district enjoy. In one scene, Gluckin’s friends can’t quite believe she can afford her beachside home on the east end. She claims her husband’s business is simply doing particularly well this year. We later learn that Gluckin can only afford her indulgences — like the renovations on her Hamptons’ home — by expensing everything on the district credit card. She even lends out the card to family members in need.
In 2016, Makowsky wrote the script about the scandal on spec. He wanted to write something about Long Island because it’s “so specific.” As a former student of the Syosset school district (one of Roslyn’s rival districts name checked several times in the film) I can confirm Jackman and Janney nail the accents and unrequited passion for a great pastrami sandwich. It’s more than just the surface level stuff that rings true to the sensibility of many towns in Nassau County.
“Roslyn is a town that places much of its worth on the success of its public education system,” Makowsky says. I’m familiar: I knew Syosset was deemed a “blue ribbon school” not only because the signs were everywhere, but because it was a rebuttal whenever someone complained about the high taxes. (But you know, the schools, they’re really worth it…)
The parents in the film see Roslyn High School as the perfect stepping stone for a future Ivy League education, and tarnishing the school’s image means potentially hurting their children’s chances at a Princeton ticket. When Gluckin is caught before Tassone, the superintendent is able to convince the school board it’s better to deal with the situation quietly than risk a scandal that could rock Roslyn forever. It’s a moment played for laughs in the film: The parents calmly explain to Gluckin that they think she’s a sociopath, while ignoring their own selfish actions.
When Tassone himself is caught, he tells a parent played by Ray Romano that he was spending money on himself to keep up Roslyn’s image. The suits, the car — it was all to make Roslyn look like the elite district it perceives itself to be. Tassone’s actions may help get students into an Ivy League school and earn six-figures straight out of college, but when he wants a piece of wealth, it’s seen as obscene. Then again, it’s hard to sympathize too deeply with Tassone: He is committing fraud, even if it’s not “sociopathy” driving it.
Even Tassone’s students understand that Roslyn’s reputation is significant: When a high school reporter named Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovers Tassone may be stealing from the district, her editor (Alex Wolff) is unsure how to proceed. Tassone is writing his college recommendation letter...why risk it? Rachel, the moral compass of the film, is floored — even though her own father has gotten caught up in an insider trading scam that mirrors Tassone’s scandal.
It may have been the district’s push to create overachieving students, passionate about extracurriculars, that sparked Tassone’s downfall. Like student reporter Rachel, Makowsky wrote for (and ultimately became editor of) Roslyn High School’s newspaper, The Hilltop Beacon. A few years before Makowsky’s time at the newspaper, The Beacon was the first outlet to break the scandal, Newsday being the second.
“The Newsday reporter is my friend Sam’s dad,” says Makowsky. “I asked him how he got a beat on the story, and he said that Sam brought home a copy of the Hilltop Beacon.”
Makowsky returned to Roslyn to speak to the parents, teachers, and administrators who were around during the scandal. He outlined the film in his old high school cafeteria, and Rachel’s bedroom in the movie is in his real childhood home. Other houses seen in the film belong to his mom’s friends, or the parents’ of people he went to school with. (“Sometimes we would go on a scout, and the homeowner would run up and hug me and be like ‘Hi! I’m so-and-so’s mom!’” he laughs.) While Makowsky says that the majority of people he spoke with are “excited” about Bad Education, there are a “small contingent” who aren’t as thrilled.
“The current school board has done a great job of building Roslyn up again over the past 16 years, to the point where the school has regained a position of national prominence,” he explains. “I think there is a segment of that population that would prefer it if the scandal wasn’t drudged up again.”
As far as scandals go, however, the resurfacing of Roslyn’s seems inevitable. While Tassone and Gluckin stole from the district for their own benefit, there’s a similarity between what happened at Roslyn and the college admissions scandal in which stars like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were accused of faking their kids’ ways into elite institutions. It’s not merely about greed or entitlement: These scams are about keeping up with the Joneses, at whatever cost. In Bad Education, it’s Tassone and Gluckin who pay the price, but the movie’s not just an indictment of them. It’s about what happens when striving to be the best really means faking it until you make it.
Oh, and as for the parent who wanted her son to get into that gifted program...Makowksy says due to the competition it bred between the students and their parents, the program was ultimately disbanded.
Bad Education premieres on HBO Saturday, April 25.