North Carolina is opening a new grant program to spend $800 million in federal money on early childhood education, including funding for higher salaries for teachers and improving facilities, the governor announced Thursday.  

Day cares and early childhood education centers gave parents and employers a critical lifeline through the pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper said while visiting a day care in Carrboro Thursday morning.

"Investment in early childhood education is absolutely critical for children's success," Cooper said outside the Community School for People Under Six in Carrboro.

The pandemic "revealed a lot of vulnerabilities," said Rep. David Price, who joined the governor for the announcement. "We underpay these workers in a disgraceful way."

He said the shortage in child care hurts women and working parents. "It's a long-term problem" that got worse because of the pandemic, he said.

"Long-term problems need long-term solutions," the congressman said, pointing to President Joe Biden's provisions in the Build Back Better proposal that would give more funding to early childhood education.

The money will come from funding in the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan.

The grants, through the state Department of Health and Human Services, can be used to increase teacher salaries, give bonuses and make improvements to facilities, DHHS's Susan Gale Perry said. "This is the single largest early care investment in North Carolina," she said. 

Early childhood education providers will have to apply for the grants, which will range from $3,000 to $60,000 per quarter, Perry said. The program is funded for 18 months.

Anna Mercer-McLean, director of the Community School, said she plans to use part of the funds to help pay her staff more.

"We need to be able to pay competitive salaries," she said. "It's been a struggle for us."

She said she also plans to apply for money to help improve facilities at the school in Carrboro, not far from Franklin Street.

DHHS's Division of Child Development and Early Education will begin taking applications for the grants on Monday and said the department will start sending out funding in November.