Vanity Ed

HBO’s "Bad Education" is a Morality Tale for All

In the fall of 2002, the Roslyn, Long Island, school district was nearing the pinnacle of U.S. public education. The Wall Street Journal had ranked Roslyn High, situated on Long Island’s tony North Shore, the sixth-best public high school in the country. Reflecting its progressive-minded community, the school had flat screen TVs in the halls, free condoms in the health room, and was one of the first high schools in the state to require community service to graduate. A fourth of its senior class, year by year, was being accepted into the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities.

But all that glitters is not gold, and things are often not as they appear. By spring 2004, Roslyn’s taxpayers would discover they’d been swindled out of more than $11 million. At the center of the scandal were Roslyn’s dashing superintendent Frank Tassone and his workhorse assistant and business manager Pamela Gluckin. The duo enjoyed a tightknit working relationship that, at some point during their twelve-year joint tenure, turned into a massive, ongoing heist. He maintained the district’s upscale image, and she maintained the books. He binged on high-end clothing, cosmetic treatments, and boondoggle trips, she on homes, vacations, and art. He shared his windfalls with gay lovers, she with her immediate and extended family.

HBO has dramatized the whole sordid affair in Bad Education. It takes some liberties with the story, but according to people close to the events, it mostly gets the plot and personalities right. The script was written by a former student, who was in middle school at the time.

As happens with any explosive story, different people have their different takes on it. Some say it will shock you or make you angry (which it may). Others have said it’s an indictment on the public for not properly valuing educators (which I think is perverse). I think it contains a sober warning for all of us, regardless of how we relate to the education system. For while there’s no excuse for theft (Tassone and Gluckin both pled guilty to first-degree larceny, and both spent time in prison), there are character shortcomings on all sides of the crime, and therefore lessons we can all take from it.

None of us is immune to:

  • Self-importance. Tassone was celebrated for elevating the status of the district to national prominence. But the community, school board, and parents, as well, were taken up with their own version of image-consciousness.
  • Self-indulgence. Certainly, this was true of Tassone and Gluckin, both of whom helped themselves to other people’s money as if they deserved it (and then reacted like entitled, spoiled teenagers when confronted). But a similar trait can be seen in a Roslyn school parent, who continually sought (and apparently received) special treatment for her child. I’m not saying that advocating for your child is equivalent to taking what isn’t yours. But a habit of expecting special treatment can grow out of the same root. The delusion that “the rules don’t apply to me” can take many forms.
  • Self-interest. Gluckin is caught first, and when she is exposed, no one suspects Tassone. True to fallen human nature, he throws her under the bus to save himself. He accomplishes this by appealing to the self-interests of the school board. He pitches a plan whereby Gluckin is “allowed” to resign quietly on the pretext that she is ill, a wickedly ingenious scheme that, he argues, avoids detrimental effects on college admission rates, local real estate values, and the reputation of the school which ties these things together. Meanwhile, it also conveniently avoids attracting attention from nosy reporters or auditors.

These traits area all aspects of what traditional Christian thinkers have called “pride.” Peter Kreeft wrote in Back to Virtue (1992), “Nothing distinguishes Christian morality from pagan morality more sharply than their opposite attitudes toward pride. Pride is the greatest sin. ..It was the Devil’s original sin [and it] was also Adam’s (our) original sin, the desire to be like God, over the Law rather than under it.” Pride puts self before God, loves self more than God. It essentially says to God, “My will be done.” Tassone and Gluckin brazenly chose the “My will be done” orientation. But to one extent or another, they were enabled along by the same orientation among the community they purported to serve.

The opposite of this kind of pride is captured in the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – which shouldn’t be taken to mean self-loathing, but simply as a proper understanding of oneself before God. On the upside, the Roslyn story also demonstrates the importance of just one person who prioritizes truth over image and self-interest. In the movie, a hard-hitting, but properly humble, investigative student reporter brings the whole con down, Bernstein and Woodward style. That’s not exactly how it happened, but it did begin with a student reporter, who broke the story in the Hilltop Reporter, the student newspaper. Rebekahn Rombom followed up on a tip about the real reason behind Gluckin’s dismissal, and local authorities and news outlets took it from there.

“Pride goes before destruction,” wrote King Solomon, “and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Bad Education is a true crime morality tale that that drives this truism home. It’s a slick production with sobering warnings for us all.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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