Traditional tutoring services argue that it's hard to compete against an online provider that can give away something worth hundreds of dollars.

(Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles from the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, examining abuses in the federally mandated tutoring program under No Child Left Behind.)

Thanks to his daughter’s troubled elementary school, Zhengjun Wang will return to China with a pricey souvenir from his family’s yearlong stay in Rochester, Minn.: a computer.

Like thousands of other public-school students in Minnesota and across the country, Wang’s daughter received the laptop as an inducement to sign up with an online tutoring service. Wang said the free gift was the only factor that influenced his tutoring selection.

“We never had a computer before,” explained the medical student, who brought his family with him while completing a research fellowship at the Mayo Clinic.

The practice of luring low-income families with promises of free computers has corrupted the national tutoring program, many school administrators say—making a mockery of rules created to prevent gifts and other incentives from influencing a parent’s choice of tutoring providers.

Online tutoring companies say the computers are intended to level the economic playing field for families who can’t afford a home computer. But in Minnesota and most other states, incentives for signing up for tutoring services are supposed to be capped at $50 or less.

“It’s a marketing gimmick,” said Susan Currey, who oversees federally financed tutoring for the St. Cloud Area School District. “Who isn’t enticed by a free computer?”

Though parents like the perk, the real beneficiaries of the computer giveaways appear to be online tutoring companies. They have come to dominate the nearly $1 billion market created by the federal government’s tutoring program, often to the dismay of school officials.

Not only do web-based tutoring companies often take longer to start service than other tutoring vendors; they often charge higher rates to cover the cost of the equipment, school records show. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, just 5 percent of nearly 5,000 students who used online tutors in recent years received at least 40 hours of instruction. Research shows 40 hours is the minimum needed for meaningful results.

In some instances, it is not even clear who is receiving instruction. With some online vendors offering access 24 hours a day, school officials are worried that parents and other family members are sometimes doing the work of their children. In 2011, for instance, St. Paul officials flagged an invoice showing a kindergartner allegedly online at midnight.