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Sleaze in the Cinema: HBO’s Bad Education is all good

I just watched the new HBO drama Bad Education, and I highly recommend it.

It’s a surprisingly deep examination into human behavior, and more specifically into the complex way exacting standards and unyielding ambition can work for both good and evil.

The story is based on an actual scandal that erupted in 2002 at a top-ranking high school district in Long Island, New York. It chronicles how a preoccupation with school rankings intersects with a desire to be part of aristocratic society, and is the undoing of several school administrators.

At Roslyn school district, administrators and associates were found guilty for their roles in carrying out and covering up a multi-year fraud to the tune of over $11 million.

The film stars Hugh Jackman as Roslyn school district’s once widely revered superintendent, Frank Tassone, under whose stewardship the high school rose to be one of the best in the country. His assistant superintendent was Pamela Gluckin, played by Allison Janney, who ceaselessly offers wisecracks in a thick Long Island accent.

Each of these actors is dynamic, and in the film, they collude to steal millions from the district over many years, a crime that the New York state comptroller called the “most extraordinary theft” from a school system “in American history.”

The new drama comes to us from director Cory Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky, and it also stars Ray Romano and a wonderful supporting cast, such as the gutsy school newspaper journalist who uncovers the embezzlement and eventually “outs” the perpetrators.

This is what is so great about it: Frank Tassone is a former teacher, and he actually cares about these high schoolers and misses teaching. He wants the kids to get into Ivy League schools. (Is this sounding familiar to anyone? The recent college admissions scandal makes this movie incredibly timely.) He is polite and takes the time to remember everyone’s names.

But he later admits this: It started with a $20 charge for food on the district’s corporate card. And down the slippery slope he fell. A few charges here and there burgeon into the purchase of first-class plane tickets and plastic surgery for his face.

The parents in the school district are a bit hard to feel sorry for — they’re so caught up in the glamour of being number one that they don’t notice telltale inconsistencies in plain view – but no crimes are victimless. The taxpayer money was meant for children.

And: Hard-working and dedicated education professionals around the country, some of whom have to confront significant socio-economic challenges within their student populations, typically put their students’ interest first. And they don’t get a glamorous lifestyle in return.

This film is for them.

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