Written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Cory Finley, Bad Education is a dramatization of the largest embezzlement in American public school history – the Roslyn school district scandal of 2004, when superintendent Frank Tassone, played here by Hugh Jackman, and assistant superintendent Pamela Gluckin, played by Allison Janney, stole over eleven million dollars from government funds. Interestingly, however, Bad Education doesn’t present this in a conventionally moralistic way, going through the motions of presenting Tassone and Gluckin as the criminals, while offering their actions as an almost inevitable response to the unbearable pressures placed on public school governance and regulation in the United States.
The film opens with Tassone being congratulated for totally rehabilitating the Rosyln school district, and introduces us to him as a superintendent who is genuinely invested in his students, parents and the wider community. During these early scenes, Finley captures the quotidian vibe of school administration really authentically, so it never feels especially shocking that Tassone’s achievements come on the back of some pretty aggressive brand management and image management. Right from the outset, the film suggests, Tassone was prescient that educational resources, quality teaching and pedagogical culture weren’t enough to rehabilitate the Roslynn district. Instead, hs needed to revamp the district’s image, and engage in deft public relations – something that wealthy private schools in American can accommodate in their budget, but that remains beyond the reach of nearly all public schools.
In other words, Tassone realises that “a town is only as good as its public school system,” and vice versa, envisaging his role as a dynamic pivot between public education and property values. This vision of public education as a form of real estate regulation is provocative, but also entirely realistic, since it’s crucial for Tassone to preen the district’s image to build and then maintain a pipeline to prestigious colleges that were formerly out of his students’ grasp. This aspirational upward mobility culminates with Tassone’s crowning vision – the SkyWalk, an elevated structure to ferry students from one end of the school to the other in minutes.
For all those reasons, Bad Education tacitly distances itself from the Roslyn School Board’s disgust at discovering the embezzlement, since nearly all of the Board members have benefited from Tassone’s diversion of funds – especially real estate broker Big Bob Spicer, played by Ray Romano. The Board’s main concern, first and foremost, is that the fraud will depreciate real estate, depreciate the town’s image, and depreciate the school in turn, so even their mode of criticism affirms Tassone’s gut feeling that brand management was key.
Of course, Tassone and Gluckin did embezzle money – a lot of it – but as the film understands it virtually all of this cash was spent on elevating Tassone to a socioeconomic status where he could be a plausible figurehead for the new-and-improved Roslyn community. In other words, Tassone is situated at an unbearable juncture between public education and a privatised economy (and privatised tertiary options), forced to shoulder the open secret that public education is an impossible prospect without adequate funding. This segues into the open secret of the embezzlement itself, but also the open secret of Tassone’s homosexuality, which we only discover gradually, and which makes it even more important for Tassone to preserve and maintain his image in the exclusive, wealthy and Republican-dominated Nassau County.
This convergence of closets is especially clear when Tassone is interrogated by his auditor, Phil Metzger, played by Jeremy Shamos, and then again by Big Bob Spicer, later in the film. Both men invoke Tassone’s homosexuality as the explanation for his embezzlement – Metger, by quizzing him about an extra seat on an airplane for a “male companion” (despite the fact that taking spouses to conferences seems to have been the norm), and Spicer, with a series of peremptorily homophobic comments about how Tassone’s expensive suits “gave away” both his sexual orientation and his financial mismanagement. The irony, of course, is that both men are as complicit as Tassone, if not more complicit, since as auditor Phil was supposed to have caught the embezzlement, and as the town’s real estate kingpin Big Bob has profited more from the fraud than anyone else in the film. Nevertheless, they both present the embezzlement as a symptom of Tassone’s homosexuality, and his failure to maintain the balance of its open secrecy, even though the film veers in a different direction.
This is partly a product of how artfully Makowsky and Finley introduce Tassone’s sexuality, and thus capture the extent of his closeting. Right from the outset, the camera scrutinises Tassone’s features in a heightened way, as if to invoke Jackman’s peculiar resonance with the gay community in the wake of The Boy from Oz, before Gluckin makes an oddly phrased, offhand comment that a certain woman is “so not his type.” From there, we see Tassone pick up a man in a bar and finally, about two-thirds of the way through, we learn that he’s been in a long-term domestic partnership this whole time. Even then, however, we only learn about this most intimate part of his life through the investigation of student reporter Rachel Bhargava, played by Geraldine Viswanathan, who arrives at an apartment listed on the school’s budgetary records only to discover Tassone greeting his husband at the front door.
In media coverage of the scandal, praise was constantly bestowed upon the student reporters who cracked the case, but Bad Education is more sceptical, or at least reserved, culminating with this scene in which Tassone and Geraldine come face to face on the brink of his closeted life. In another kind of film, we might be encouraged to root for Geraldine, who uses her article to criticise Tassone’s supposed hypocrisy in funding the Sky Walk while his own superintendent’s office still has leaking roofs. As the film presents it, however, this isn’t really hypocrisy, but just an honest reflection of the bifurcated nature of Tassone’s role, which requires both capital works and image management to keep up with the private sector. For all that she “critiques” Tassone’s action, you can’t help but feel that Geraldine is the beneficiary of it – she probably wouldn’t have a school newspaper at all, or any decent college prospects, were it not for the time and effort he’s put into the public relations she excoriates.
Of course, that’s not to deny the very serious nature of the crime, or the importance of student journalism – more that the privileges Tassone has created for the town extend to the very students who try to take him down. In a really deftly toned scene, Geraldine’s father, David, played by Hari Dhillon, encourages her to speak out about Tassone because he knows how frustrating it is to miss a chance to speak out – in his case, about the insider trading that he witnessed and ignored, costing him his job. On the surface, this seems like a clear teachable moment, but the way Finley shoots the scene undercuts this simple mapping of David’s whistleblowing narrative onto Geraldine’s, while also subtly suggesting that David was more involved with insider trading than he’s letting on. Taken cumulatively, it’s yet another part of complex, cumulative portrait of Tassone as a character trying to accommodate a public school district who want a private pedagogical experience proportionate to their status and wealth.
To some extent, Tassone is defined against Gluckin, who is much more reckless in her embezzlement, and starts embezzling much earlier. Yet we learn that Gluckin was mainly stealing for her daughter’s college fund, since despite being promoted to the apex of public school administration, she still can’t fund private education for her own family. Her indignity isn’t as great as Tassone’s, however, since his status as a gay man makes him peculiarly susceptible to the town’s hypocritical outcry, which basically consists of them lambasting him for undermining precisely the family and community structures his brand management has helped rehabilitate. In his final frustration with a needy parent – the only time he ever loses it – we get a glimpse of the peculiarly precarious labour of single teachers, gay teachers, and teachers without families; teachers at the pressure point where families and communities constitute themselves, but who for that reason are often treated as the most expendable by the American public system. Combine that with one of the most scathing attacks on the impossible demands of an inadequately funded system and you have Bad Education – in its own quiet and thoughtful way, possibly the first great film made about education this decade.