Company giving free books to Florida had $10 million settlement for deception

The Florida House announced a partnership with Age of Learning last month. State officials say the free program requires no payment information.
A screenshot of the ReadingIQ program, which Age of Learning is offering to Florida children free of charge through Dec. 31.
A screenshot of the ReadingIQ program, which Age of Learning is offering to Florida children free of charge through Dec. 31. [ Age of Learning ]
Published Feb. 23, 2021|Updated Feb. 23, 2021

Last month, Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls announced that a California-based technology company called Age of Learning will offer 5,500 digital books for Florida children 12 and under through the rest of this year.

The partnership, part of Sprowls’ focus on literacy for his first year as House speaker, is a free alternative to the company’s ABCmouse Early Learning Academy online library, which costs $9.95 a month or $59.95 annually.

The announcement came four months after Age of Learning paid $10 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission complaint of illegal marketing and billing practices related to its ABCmouse, which charged tens of thousands of people memberships without consent. The Sept. 1 complaint alleged the company deployed deceptive tactics between 2015 and 2018 by failing to disclose that ABCmouse subscriptions would automatically renew and be nearly impossible to cancel.

Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra called ABCmouse a “roach motel,” where “it is easy to get in, but almost impossible to escape.” The company riddled its website with traps and “ambiguous menu options that in some cases re-enrolled members if they clicked the wrong button,” Chopra said.

Age of Learning approached the state with its offer following Sprowls’ Nov. 17 inaugural address to the Florida Legislature, where he announced a plan to deliver books each month to homes of struggling and low-income elementary school students, said House communications director Jenna Box Sarkissian.

Sarkissian, who works for Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, answered questions the Tampa Bay Times directed to the House speaker. In a statement, she said that the House “did our due diligence” into Age of Learning and was aware of the Federal Trade Commission settlement before accepting its program called ReadingIQ. She said there is no written agreement between Florida and the company for the partnership.

“ReadingIQ made a generous donation by giving away access to thousands of free digital books to Florida’s children,” Sarkissian said. “No taxpayer dollars spent, no billing information collected from families, no state contract. Free books for Florida’s kids — regardless of age, income or reading level.”

To use the free program, parents must set up an account by providing a name, email address and a reading assessment for the child.

Kathryn Green, senior director of communications for Age of Learning, said contact information is only used to communicate with parents about their account and that no payment information will be collected for the free program.

In response to a question about whether parents will be asked to buy subscriptions after the 2021 free offer has ended, Green said “we have not yet determined future plans for this new program.”

The Sept. 1 federal settlement required Age of Learning to change its practices, but Green said changes began in 2018. She said the company has streamlined and enhanced sign-up and cancellation flows so that ending an ABCmouse subscription requires “just two or three clicks.” For the past three years, Green said the sign-up and cancellation processes “have been fully compliant with all regulatory requirements.”

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Age of Learning was founded in 2007 by Doug Dohring, former CEO of online pet game Neopets, which he sold to Viacom Inc. in 2005 for $160 million. Age of Learning’s ABCmouse platform, created with help from early learning and curriculum experts, has won national awards and provides more than 10,000 activities for children, according to its website.

Dohring is also one of the world’s top donors to the Church of Scientology, where he is a longtime member. As of 2017, Dohring and his wife Laurie had donated at least $20 million to Scientology, according to an internal church magazine obtained by Tony Ortega, who runs an in-depth daily blog critical of Scientology.

There is no Scientology content in ABCmouse, Ortega reported.

Green, the Age of Learning spokesperson, said the company “does not have a relationship with any religious organization.”

“Over the past decade Age of Learning has donated more than $200 million of our educational products to schools and public libraries, helping educate millions of underprivileged children across the U.S.,” Green said.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, sent out mailers last week through his political committee to Pinellas County constituents touting the partnership with Age of Learning. On Monday, Latvala said he did not know about the FTC settlement or charges of illegal marketing and billing practices against Age of Learning before he endorsed the partnership with the state.

But he said that doesn’t change his support of the program.

“I think it’s important for kids to read in Florida and if a company wants to allow kids to have free access to their digital library that has over 5,500 titles, then I support it,” Latvala said.