The legislation was opposed by all parties in the Government of National Unity except the African National Congress, on the grounds that it infringes the constitutional powers of the country's nine provinces to run education.
Delays to the legislation could set back government plans to implement radical changes to South Africa's school system, proposed recently by a multi-party Review Committee on School Organisation, Governance and Funding.
Opposition parties argued that the National Education Policy Bill 1995 gave the central government powers far beyond the right to set national "norms and standards" in the school system, and that the ANC alliance was attempting to reverse federal concessions made in constitutional negotiations in the months preceding democratic elections last year.
More than a third of MPs from all parties other than the ANC signed a petition calling for a Constitutional Court decision on the legislation and cancellation of discussion on the Bill because it was sub judice.
Speaker Frene Ginwala ruled that the debate could go ahead because it was conceivable that agreement could be reached on the Bill, making a court ruling unnecessary.
The ensuing debate ended in agreement that the Bill could be passed in parliament which it was but could only be enacted if it was upheld by a Constitutional Court.